Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981–2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes, and Miscellany
“In so many other places in Look, I Made a Hat, as here, Stephen Sondheim has tales to tell, names to drop and wonderful, rich, savory mincemeat to make of others, all in his own inimitable, wry and ever-Sondheimy style. One in which, in variation on the usual praise thrown at actors, suggests to this reader that the man could write a phone book and leave us thoroughly entertained.”
In Look, I Made a Hat, famed lyricist, composer, and now author Stephen Sondheim completes the work begun in last year’s Finishing the Hat, which is to say that, with this second volume, he now offers readers insight into his collected lyrics from 1954–2011, complete with what Mr. Sondheim refers to as his “attendant comments, amplifications, dogmas, harangues, digressions, anecdotes, and miscellany.”
And more, for with this present volume Stephen Sondheim at long last explains his nearly obsessive attachment to that word “hat.”
As the author writes, in a section of the book dedicated to perhaps his masterpiece, the musical Sunday in the Park with George, which itself contains the song that supplied his first title, “Finishing the Hat:”
“One more thing about this song: my fondness for the word ‘hat,’ which the British critic Michael Ratcliffe pointed out in his program note at London’s Royal National Theatre, when Sunday in the Park with George was produced there in 1990. From ‘You could say,”Hey, here’s your hat’” in Gypsy to ‘Does anyone still wear a hat?’ in Company, through ‘Hats off’ in Follies and ‘It’s called a bowler hat’ in Pacific Overtures, I seem to be attached to it as an image. Surely some future graduate student in Musical Theater, looking for an obscure subject to write about will seize on ‘The Use of Headgear in Sondheim’s Lyrics’ and conjure up insightful theories for my persistent attraction to the word, but I can save him the trouble, it’s the jaunty tone and the ease in rhyming that attract me—two sound reasons.”
The pun concerning those sound reasons aside (one assumes that, at his time of life, Mr. Sondheim just cannot help it), at last the hats can be put to rest, after one thing more, and that is the song “Finishing the Hat” itself, a song that has been said on more than one occasion (although not within the pages of the volume) to be Mr. Sondheim’s favorite. And well it might be, as it captures the moment of the creative impulse by showing a painter named George as he creates a hat:
“Finishing the hat,
How you have to finish the hat,
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
While you finish the hat
“Mapping out a sky,
What you feel like, planning a sky,
What you feel when voices that come
Through the window
Until they distance and die,
Until there’s nothing but sky”
The desire here is to go on, just keep running the lyrics of the song like ticker tape, because the words that Sondheim himself puts on the page are better than any that anyone else could come up with by way of explaining his extraordinary talent for hiding such deep and tender meaning in such snappy, funny, thoughtful, shrewd lyrics.
But best to move on. I suggest that, for better understanding and deep pleasure, you buy Look, I Made a Hat.
After this. After the final line of the song, the line that so well sums up the creative urge at its conclusion, and the creative urgency that the artist feels as it demands that he so often “watch the rest of the world from a window” in order to accomplish what must be accomplished and create what must be created:
“Look, I made a hat
Where there never was a hat.”
The final “ah” of that last “hat” recalls so many moments of extreme satisfaction on the parts of so may theatergoers in the throes of their own private experiences of “Sondheimania,” during which the impossible seems to happen when the world within the author’s head enters the viewer’s own.
And the power in the lyrics to induce this transformation becomes apparent here, in that we are here given the chance to read them at our own pace, sometimes recognizing poetry, other times prose. In all cases and narrative structures they retain the same ability to entertain and to move as they do on the stage, not only in cases in which the reader is lucky enough to have memories of shows seen in order to hear the echoes in his ear as he reads long, but also in the cases of work that is quite new to the reader. Here, the reader is free to impose what music he might to the work, or to simply dip in and enjoy the riches of the language presented on the printed page.
One may never forget, however, that these are words meant to be sung, and, perhaps more important, to be acted.
Which is where this reader comes to terms with Mr. Sondheim. In the closing pages of his last book, he made a great deal about the fact that he chose to divide his work as he did with a critical year, 1981, which, as he reminds us in the identical last line of the first book and last line of the introduction of the second (should have been first line for symmetry),
“Then I met James Lapine . . .”
Ah, but that limits the wealth of offerings that 1981 brought to the table. It was in that year that our author brought to the stage perhaps his best two interpreters in Mandy Patinkin and, especially, Bernadette Peters, who inhabited the world of Sunday in the Park and, in the opinion of some, elevated it by their presence.
Indeed, if there is a single quibble to be had with this feast of a book, with this witty, intelligent look at the creativity/commerce/public relations/egotism/workshops/rhyming and bonhomie that it takes to get a play staged, much less a career of the likes of Stephen Sondheim launched and lived, it is that the performers often get short shrift.
While it is enjoyable to know that Mr. Sondheim cheered up Phyllis Newman after the closing of her show Pleasures and Palaces by inventing for her a new game of “Murder” to improve upon and enliven the older, more staid version, and while it is about time someone gave the genius of Donna Murphy its due (Sondheim writes: “If Pamela Myers’s audition for Company was the most heartwarming in my experience and Hermione Gingold’s for A Little Night Music the most bizarre . . . , Donna Murphy’s for Passion was the most impressive.”), the reader quite simply closed the book wishing that, while the book so deftly covers the evolutionary process of each show from conception to reception, a little more attention could have been given to the actors.
After all, Elaine Stritch sucked up so much of the available oxygen in volume one—couldn’t a little have been saved for Bernadette Peters, among others, in volume two? Or perhaps that is her book to write.
Still and all, quibbles aside, the pleasures are many and joy abounds. Especially here, in this brief encounter between Mr. Sondheim and filmmaker Billy Wilder:
“At the time (around 1960) [playwright and director] Burt Shevelove and I were toying with the notion of transforming Sunset Boulevard into a musical. We had actually sketched out the first few scenes, so when I found myself introduced to Wilder, the movie’s director and co-author, I plunged right in. Blushingly, I allowed as how I was co-author of West Side Story and Gypsy and now had an interest in adapting his movie. ‘But you can’t make a musical out of Sunset Boulevard,’ he snapped. Startled and dismayed, I assumed that what he meant was that the rights were not available. I was wrong. He continued, ‘It has to be an opera. It is the story of a dethroned queen.’ Instantly, I recognized that he was right and relayed the story to Burt and we abandoned the project; I had no desire to write an opera, which is a form I resist. Years later, shortly after Sweeney Todd, the notion came up again: Hal Prince wanted to produce and direct it, with a book by Hugh Wheeler, starring Angela Lansbury. Again, I balked. As the subsequent musical by other hands proved (for me at least), Wilder was right.”
In so many other places in Look, I Made a Hat, as here, Stephen Sondheim has tales to tell, names to drop and wonderful, rich, savory mincemeat to make of others, all in his own inimitable, wry and ever-Sondheimy style. One in which, in variation on the usual praise thrown at actors, suggests to this reader that the man could write a phone book and leave us thoroughly entertained.
Or more succinctly, as the author himself puts it in his introduction to this volume, perhaps by way of explanation of everything else that is to follow: “Writing is a form of mischief.”