Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes

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Release Date: 
October 25, 2010
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Surely at no other point in his illustrious career as the reigning Broadway lyricist/songwriter/composer of his time has Stephen Sondheim presented such a disappointing first act curtain. To hear him tell it, his collaborators—Hal Prince, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Laurents chief among them—would not have permitted it. And yet, as there was only one author of this book, there it is, that last line: “And then I met James Lapine.”

Where is Arthur Laurents when you need him?

The issue, of course, is not so much what the line says as what it promises, the lure of what lies ahead: Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and the intense, brilliant Passion. But as much as the reader might wish to turn the page and go forward to read about those shows and about Donna Murphy, Mandy Patinkin and, especially, Bernadette Peters, there simply is no page to turn.

The theater, they say, is filled with plays that have a good first act and a weak second. Here we have no second act at all and none is promised in the text, only implied by the book’s subtitle Collected Lyrics (1954–1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. That promise is placed on the book’s cover directly under the title, and a marvelous title: Finishing the Hat. That the book’s title is also the title of a song by Mr Sondheim is all well and good. But the fact that that song is from the musical, Sunday in the Park with George, one that is not actually included in this book of lyrics, forcing those who want to pierce the mystery of the choice to go and Google to search out those lyrics, seems contrapuntally both Sondheim’s joke and an act of literary perversion.

But enough of this. That this is a book that plays by its own rules is a given, given who its author is, a man who broke the rules both early and often and, in doing so, revolutionized the American musical. And enough about what the book is not and what it does not contain. What actually made it onto the page is a rich and ripe testament to what the stripper Mazeppa offers as advice to the young Louise, the future Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy: “You can pull all the stops out/Till they call the cops out,/Grind your behind till you’re banned,/But you gotta get a gimmick/If you want to get a hand.”

And, brother, this book’s got gimmicks aplenty. Footnotes that play id to the author’s ego, asides, histories and anecdotes. In other words, more or less exactly what was promised. Like children on Halloween, readers are treated to a whole bag of assorted sweets. We get feints and double-feints, hints, secrets, and surprises enough to recall The Last of Sheila, the 1973 murder mystery movie that Sondheim co-wrote with actor Anthony Perkins. We get homage (Oscar Hammerstein, who was Sondheim’s alma pater is much-mentioned and much-revered—but enough already by the third or fourth reference—we get it: He was great), and we get grudges and some downright dismissals as well (fans of Noel Coward would be well advised to avert their eyes at several key points in the text).

We get the famous tale from Company of Elaine Stritch and “The Ladies who Lunch:” we are taken into the rehearsal in which Stritch came up to Sondheim to question him over a particular line in the song that went “perhaps a piece of Mahler’s.” Exactly what kind of pastry was Mahler known for, she asked him, and where was the pastry shop located? (As Sondheim puts it: “She figured it had to be some sort of schnecken.”) Told that Mahler was a composer and not a baker, and that the lyric presented the possibility of hearing a concert, Stritch went on her way perplexed, but triumphed with the song in the end.

There are backstage tales of Sweeney Todd, of Follies, of Anyone can Whistle (and the long suspected friction between Angela Landsbury and Lee Remick), of Broadway triumphs—West Side Story and Gypsy—and shocking financial failures, Anyone Can Whistle chief among them.

And then there are the lyrics, and, oh, what lyrics they are. Given the chance to see them, read them, even as we hear the echoes of performances past as our eyes scan the page, readers are reminded again and again of the wit, the heartache and the tangy turns of musical phrase that each of his shows contain. From Sally’s broken “I dim the lights/And think about you,/Spend sleepless nights/To think about you/You said you loved me,/Or were you just being kind?/Or am I losing my mind?” from Follies to Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum: “No one is perfect,/You have your flaws,/But I don’t care./I have the flaws/That you have because/I want to share,” Finishing the Hat serves to remind us of Sondheim’s gifts as we learn, in this master class of a book, of the intense amount of work that seeming so sublimely gifted requires.

Reading these lyrics, the reader is reminded that Sondheim’s ear for a lyrical rhyme is keener than any perfumer’s nose. And of his unparalleled impact upon not only the Broadway musical but upon American culture as well.

Finishing the Hat is a vibrant thing. A book that is lit from within. But, like all good things, it comes to an end. And in this case, the end comes far too soon and much too abruptly, as someone somewhere says, “Mr Sondheim, I’d like you to meet James LaPine . . .” and leaves us dangling with half the story untold.

So, Mr. Sondheim, hurry: Finish the damned hat!