I finished reading Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat last week, his first volume of collected, annotated lyrics. A few random comments:
-Reading the lyrics is enjoyable, but what I really ate up was the commentary, both the notes on Sondheim’s own songs, and the mini-essays on canonical music theatre composers. As some reviewers have noted, Sondheim is very critical of his colleagues – Lorenz Hart is “lazy” for example. I have to say that my awe of an artist like Hart always led me to assume that my slight discomfort with the last word in the couplet “your looks are laughable, unphotographable” (in “My Funny Valentine”), was my problem, not a flaw in the lyric. Sondheim throws the blame on Hart, saying “unphotogenic” is what is really meant, and “unphotographable” is sloppy.
-As a composer I longed for commentary on the music itself, the notes and rhythms. A truly technical discussion would not be possible. The level of musical literacy, even among the elite population (the “general public” – ha!) that would buy this book, is appallingly low. But surely there could have been a less technical discussion that would engage, for example, the play of motives in Sweeney Todd, or would expand on Sondheim’s assertion that the languages of both Ravel and Rachmaninoff were models for A Little Night Music. (Ravel obviously, but where is the Rachmaninoff?) I also wish there were annotations on the reproductions of lyric drafts that appear throughout the book, and more draft pages with musical notation. The book is already big, and asking for even more is probably unreasonable – but still, the commentary is what I found most interesting in the book.
-It seems odd that a book proclaiming that “God is in the details” right on its very endpapers should have more than one page where an analytical comment is stated both in the body of the text and in a footnote on the same page.
Sondheim on Colbert here.