Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981)
Stephen Sondheim, 2010

First off, this feels almost like a reference work, so don't expect to just sit down and read through it unless you're an even bigger musical theater geek than I am. Most of the text is lyrics, just as it says, surrounded by annotation, photos and additional information.

It's an interesting hybrid: there is information about the development of some of the shows, but a large amount of the commentary is either self-deprecating nitpicking about his own lyrics or tangents about the merits and flaws of many classic Broadway composers and lyricists. I think someone with an exhaustive knowledge of classic Broadway composers would get more out of his opinions of them than I did. It's still an interesting series of pieces detailing various techniques or habits, but without the ability to mentally call up obscure works of the other artists immediately, comprehension sometimes got a bit muddy for me.

Also, I have to agree with what Sondheim says in the introduction: “Theater lyrics are not written to be read but to be sung.... A printed collection of them, bereft of their dramatic circumstances and the music which gives them live, is a dubious proposition.” That isn't to say I didn't enjoy reading the book, only that I skimmed the lyrics for the most part, and mostly jumped over shows that I'm not familiar with the music for (Saturday Night, Do I Hear a Waltz) to only touch down on the commentary.

There's a lot to enjoy here for a fan like me: witty remarks about various plots and songs, background for why one song or another was cut or written. There are anecdotes about working with various collaborators and actors, although it doesn't ever descend into gossip. I was personally amused to come to the five full pages devoted to writing out the lyrics to Simple (Anyone Can Whistle). That is one long, crazy song. Seeing everything in order also allows you to trace the development of various techniques in his work.

The most useful parts for me were the short descriptions in front of each song giving it its place in the show. This provides a fuller understanding of shows I haven't seen live, and is particularly informative for songs that were cut: songs that I've only heard on compilations. (For example: for some reason I didn't remember “Two Fairy Tales” was written for A Little Night Music, to be sung by Anne and Henrik. That makes sense!)

Note the cover: it only chronicles up to 1981, leading up to, but not getting to, Sunday in the Park With George. The ending implies that part two is only a matter of time. (The internet reports that the second volume will come out this fall.)

Overall, this is an enjoyable book, though highly specialized.

4 – A Really Good Book

Finishing the Hat is available on


La Toya said...

Sounds like an awesome freaking read. I'm a music lover and love old Broadway. I would love to read about Cole Porter lyrics as well since they are so awesome.

I'm also an opera singer and sometimes they ask us to recite the words in English and it just doesn't sound right when it isn't sung. So I totally dig the quote you wrote there!

Lah @ Lazy Girl Reads

La Toya said...

And wait a minute, can we also talk about how amazing that picture is?

Lindsay said...

Ha, thanks! I try to take interesting photos :)

It's a pretty cool book, but it's quite expensive, and only "Part One". I borrowed a copy from the library. I really love that part two is going to be titled "Look, I Made a Hat", though.

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