I admit bias. I’m working on my third Sondheim role in three years since returning to the stage. He wrote half the shows I’ve done, and I rarely pass on a production of one of his works. I’ve done Company, Merrily We Roll Along, and now Follies, and Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Assassins, Sunday in the Park with George, Road Show, and Into the Woods are all high on my bucket list of shows I’d love to try. Even people who aren’t theater fans recognize iconic shows like West Side Story and Gypsy, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics.
But musical theater isn’t everyone’s thing, and even for fans, Sondheim takes work to enjoy: the books for his shows are often dark or satirical without the pat happy endings that many associate with the genre. While his music and lyrics are catchy, he also loves dissonance and uses big words liberally. Performing his music can be a love/hate proposition: Sondheim tests your ear, memory, breathing apparatus, and the muscles of your tongue and jaw to the maximum degree. Performers are warned off auditioning with Sondheim for other shows because the music is notoriously difficult to play, with tricky accompaniments and frequent changes in key and time signature.
Still, it’s hard to find a musical theater afficianado (at least one under 50) who wouldn’t put Sondheim atop the canon. His shows are revived more often than any contemporary and his songs frequently cobbled into new revues. Why?
There’s depth in his work that rewards years of listening, that leaves one finding new pleasures in even the smallest songs, appreciating another level of wordplay in a line that one has heard again and again. His rhymes are perfect and more often than not surprising. Lyrics are stuffed with internal rhymes, clever puns, and interesting ideas, but if one can stay in tempo, they come gracefully off the tongue, always well-matched (or cleverly undermined) by the underlying tune. And Sondheim’s subject matter is much more diverse than the variations on boy-meets-girl that dominate most of the genre.
Which brings me to Sondheim’s lyric collection Finishing the Hat, which collects lyrics from the first half of his career (everything I say here applies equally well to Look I Made a Hat, the second volume which covers work from 1981 to date). These two books are many things: a sort of memoir, a history of modern musical theater, a treatise on the art of songwriting, and a delightful collection of poetry all wrapped up in one package.
This is dense reading that contains not only all the lyrics (including those for numbers that were cut), but his honest opinion about his successes and failures, facsimiles of early drafts of his work, behind-the-scenes production pictures, and perhaps most interesting of all, his notes on each show and his thoughts about other composers and lyricists (those who have died; he assiduously avoids the subject of his living contemporaries).
Unless you’re a huge fan, don’t read this treasure chest from cover to cover. Read the introduction and the lead-in notes to each show, but after that, sample. Just as many re-read Shakespeare before attending a play, you might preview the lyrics of a Sondheim show to help you catch more nuances during the actual performance. Browse through favorite shows or numbers, preferably as you listen to a cast album or watch the film of a production that you checked out on the same library visit. Enjoy the pictures, and watch for sidebars, where Sondheim often has very pointed things to say.