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Listen to Him a Little

February 10, 2011 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

I have no objectivity when it comes to Finishing the Hat, Stephen Sondheim's collected lyrics covering the years 1954-1981, recently published by Alfred A. Knopf. How could I, when the musicals discussed in these pages, beginning with Gypsy, which I saw during its Philadelphia tryout in 1959, have made up some of the most memorable moments I've spent in the theater?

For the record, I also attended the Philadelphia tryout of that noble, confused, wrongheaded but somehow lovable mid-'60s musical experiment, Anyone Can Whistle, which had music and lyrics by Sondheim, book and direction by Arthur Laurents (who'd also written Gypsy), and a cast that included Angela Lansbury, Lee Remick and Harry Guardino.

Beginning with Company in 1970, I had to travel into Manhattan to see original Sondheim productions since by that time plays and musicals were no longer tinkered with out-of-town before premiering on Broadway.

And more recently, whenever possible, I've seen major revivals and concert performances of these same works, in New York and locally, for comparison's sake and to help beef up the pleasure quotient in my life. (Luckily, I married a music major with a similar passion for theater.)

The only original production I missed in my youth was West Side Story in 1957. You might think that was because I was too young. But the year before, when I was just a tyke of 7 or so, my parents took me to see the pre-Broadway tryout of My Fair Lady, which played four weeks at the Erlanger Theater here before heading due north (as I type these words, I can see the spot through my office window where the Erlanger, a truly gargantuan structure, once stood at 21st and Market streets).

My Fair Lady was my first live performance, and it left an indelible impression upon me. From that moment forward, I was totally smitten with the idea of going to the theater.

So what was up with West Side Story? The Leonard Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents musical about gang warfare in New York City, based, of course, on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, did try out in Philadelphia after a spell in Washington, D.C. My parents saw it here -- but didn't like it much -- so decided not to take any of their children. (The subject matter probably wasn't an automatic fit in any parent's mind for their youngsters to see.) But I have never forgiven them this slight.

Just Nostalgia?

All of the above is not to imply that the pleasures to be had from Finishing the Hat rest in a deep pool of nostalgia for the glory years of American theater; they only begin there. All those who respond positively to a Sondheim score -- and I know there are people who don't, but I can't really fathom why -- are aware of how literate and intelligent he is, but musical literacy doesn't necessarily translate into a memorable prose style.

Sondheim is the exception that proves the rule.

There are so many splendid sentences and paragraphs explicating all the brilliant rhyme schemes he's devised that you begin to wonder how any one individual could be blessed with so many talents.

The book also makes for the best kind of pedagogical experience, especially when the author expounds upon those elements that can lead to sturdy, durable lyrics. It's also a kick to see images of the actual sheets of lined legal paper that Sondheim used to type out his songs, replete with his pencil-mark revisions.

Still, I think it's in his musings on the lyricists he most admires that one finds the real gold.

Those familiar with the general outline of Sondheim's life know that he was the protégé of Oscar Hammerstein II (he calls him his "surrogate father"). So it's interesting to hear Sondheim say that when it came to his first musical composition, Saturday Night, it wasn't to Hammerstein that he turned for inspiration but to Frank Loesser. Here's what he has to say about that prodigiously talented individual. (He calls him "the idea man.")

Sondheim states that he admires Loesser most especially for his urban songs, like those in Guys and Dolls. "[A]long with his predecessors Dorothy Fields and Irving Berlin, [he] was a master of conversational lyrics, though with a difference: he tailored his lyrics to the individual characters at hand, whereas Berlin wasn't interested in character and Fields's lyrics were mostly reflections of herself, rueful and amused ('I Can't Give You Anything But Love'). When they were characters he could understand instinctively, urban or raffish or both, in Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Loesser was able to perform the rare trick of sounding modestly conversational and brilliantly dextrous at the same time, a skill only Fields and occasionally Berlin possessed before him. Like them, he concealed the artifice behind the art; he could bury and reveal his virtuosity simultaneously."

He calls Loesser's style, which he tried to impart to his characters in Saturday Night, "a quintessentially New York Jewish wisecrack flavor."

And here is Sondheim on E.Y. Harburg, best known for his lyrics for Finian's Rainbow and The Wizard of Oz.

"One of my favorite lyric lines comes from a song of his, as does one of my favorite couplets, both in the same show (Bloomer Girl) and both for the same reason: they each conjure up an ethos. In the first instance it is that of a black man in a Southern prison, in the second that of a repressive middle-class New England community, both instances taking place in the late 19th century. The line is from the song 'The Eagle and Me':

 

  • "Ever since the day 
    When the world was an onion ...

    "The couplet is from 'Sunday in Cicero Falls':

    "Even the rabbits 
    Inhibit their habits 
    On Sunday in Cicero Falls

    "Lyrics don't come any better than that."

The perfect companion to what I imagine is only the first volume of his lyrics is Sondheim on Music, a collection of lengthy interviews between the composer and Mark Eden Horowitz, published by Scarecrow Press. These highly detailed discussions cover some of the works analyzed in Finishing the Hat, plus a number of musicals that will likely be featured among the next batch of Sondheim scribblings, among them Passion, Assassins, Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George.

In between these thorough conversations are shorter ones on such subjects as the difficulty of singing a Sondheim song and the numerous references to windows in so many of his lyrics; in these interludes, there is also much gold to be mined.


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