Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim


In a recently published book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1988) with attendant comments, principles, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes by Stephen Sondheim the prolific Broadway composer of legendary shows including: “Gypsy”, “West Side Story”, “Sweeney Todd”, “Follies”, and his more recent works, “Passion”, “Into the Woods”, “Assassins”, “Sunday in the Park With George” and others. The book details shows up until “Sweeney Todd” and the failed musical “Merrily We Roll Along.” In addition to the lyrics, he discusses his comments on how the shows came to be, why certain decisions were made and his reactions to the Musical Theatre’s positives and negatives. For instance Sondheim takes issue with earlier lyricists having all performers in a company number sing the same lines, where as he asks, were they thinking the same thoughts? One of his examples is Oscar Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma.” He is very insightful in his discussions and comments. We see his handwritten notes, typed pages and photographs from the productions. A new volume Look Ma, I Made a Hat is in the works discussing his later works.

It strikes me reading the book that Sondheim is definitely gifted and maybe a genius in his own right. Here is a man with his love for complexity, who is not very demanding and not easily satisfied. In many ways other writers work, for instance “Oklahoma” and others the music and story are far more simple and less complex. Compare it to “Sweeney Todd”, or “Into the Woods,” which are far deeper, more complex with characters with far more complexity. Like many gifted people, Sondheim exhibits divergent thinking which leads his work and the work he chooses into darker places. For instance “Assassins” is a musical about all the presidential assassins or those who attempted, in the history of the U.S. with John Wilkes Booth encouraging Kennedy’s assassin Oswald and the common theme “Everyone’s got the right.” In “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which he wrote with Hugh Wheeler, is about a man wrongly accused, comes back to murder the judge who rapes his wife and is now  lusting over the teen-aged daughter Joanna, and slices the throats of many until the judge gets his. Mrs. Lovett, originally played by Angela Lansbury, makes meat pies from the remains.

Sondheim Review, a magazine dedicated to Sondheim

Review of Finishing the Hat in the NY Times.

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