Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Sondheim tops off story with 2nd 'Hat'

Biggest sleeper in the book world last year?

You could make a strong case for Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat, the first of two volumes collecting the lyrics he wrote while remaking the American musical.

The New York Times included Finishing the Hat on its coveted list of 10 Best Books of 2010.

Now Sondheim is back with the encore.

Look, I Made a Hat picks up the story -- and the lyrics -- with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, taking us to the finish line while offering a treasure trove of what the subtitle promises: "Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany."

It's these extras -- especially the smart and astringent commentary on topics such as other lyricists and his own mistakes -- that make both volumes so much fun.

Here are some samples from the new one.

On awards, given that this review has already mentioned two: "Competitive awards boost the egos of the winners (until they lose) and damage the egos of the losers (until they win), while feeding the egos of the voters (all the time)."

On audiences smothering nearly every show with a standing ovation: "They are, of course, giving the ovation to themselves for having been part of a participatory experience rather than a passive one, and for having spent their time and money on it. They're reminding themselves that they're alive."

Opera? "I have successfully avoided enjoying opera all my life. ... Opera composers seem to have little sense of theater. They spend as much time having their characters sing about trivialities as matters of emotional importance."

Sondheim also decries amplification -- not just for what it has done to performers, but because it has made us lazy listeners.

Rock musicals? "Earnest, monotonous, and humorless." Directors? "Good directors shine a new light on a piece; the others shine a light on themselves." Dramaturges? "They have a heightened sense of history and little sense of theater."

Sondheim's second helping of comments on other lyricists focuses on those who only wrote occasionally for the theater.

DuBose Heyward's lyrics to Porgy and Bess "remain for me the most genuinely poetic and deeply felt in the history of musical theater," while Richard Wilbur's for Candide are "unequaled for their combination of wit and skill."

Sondheim does OK for himself in this department, and the second volume opens with lyrics and commentary covering four late musicals illustrating the master at work: Sunday as well as Into the Woods, Assassins, and Passion.

James Lapine wrote the book for three of them, and Sondheim is insightful and generous in describing how working with Lapine relaxed his own writing, which became less preoccupied with rhyme and more focused on rhythm.

Sondheim also credits Lapine's influence for the "current of vulnerability, of longing" in his own later work, admitting that "I was the better for it."

Sondheim can be both vulnerable and defensive in reliving the "tortuous evolution" of the musical that became Road Show (2008), "a saga of fourteen years with four distinct scripts."

Sondheim gamely gives us all four of them, admitting to shaken confidence along the way -- while also revealing the stubborn determination that kept him going.

Like the concluding chapters gathering Sondheim's lyrics from unproduced musicals, movies (including Dick Tracy and Reds), television, juvenilia, and even occasional pieces he wrote for friends' birthdays, this portion of the book is likely to be skipped more than it's read.

That would be a mistake.

There's no question that the first volume -- chronicling the years preceding what Sondheim candidly acknowledges has been a "gradual diminution of creative energy" -- is more exciting.

But even the miscellany gathered here, together with rare photographs and manuscript reproductions, underscores Sondheim's unmitigated passion for his craft. Hat will make you feel like you're inside a musical. You might even burst into song.

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