December 10, 2010

For the theater lover on your holiday gift list, a double dose of Sondheim

There's no question what book every lover of theater -- musical theater, more specifically -- will want this year. That's Stephen Sondheim's own "Finishing the Hat" (Knopf), an irresistible collection of (to quote the book's subtitle) "Collected Lyrics (1954-1981), with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes."

Isn't it rich?

The book would be invaluable if it only contained the lyrics, since Sondheim's are the most consistently brilliant in imagery, emotion and rhyme that have ever graced a Broadway show. But there's much more. Extensive chunks of dialogue are included, providing context for the song texts.

And, for the icing on this multi-layered cake, there's Sondheim's running commentary -- explanations of how he arrived at words and phrases; analyses of how each show came together, how and why the songs worked or didn't work in their respective scenes; tons of backstage stories; even descriptions of the pencils Sondheim uses when he's writing.

You come away understanding aspects of crafting a line that you may never have considered. You also come away, of course, with an understanding of what makes Sondheim Sondheim.

The most fun in the book -- wicked fun, really -- may well be had from the author's commentaries on fellow lyricists. You just have to love the brutal honesty, even if Sondheim deflates one of your favorites in the process.

It was LOL time for me when I read his take on Oscar Hammerstein and

Continue reading "For the theater lover on your holiday gift list, a double dose of Sondheim" »

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:11 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Holiday gifts
Keep reading
Recent entries
About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog

Recent posts

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected