It’s a little daunting to write a review of “Finishing the Hat” since Paul Simon wrote one for The New York Times. I too am a songwriter but not in the elite class of Simon or Sondheim. Nevertheless, I did read and do recommend the book. Although this copy comes from the public library, songwriters especially should not only read, but also own and study, “Finishing the Hat.” You don’t have to be a fan of Broadway musicals to learn a lot about the craft from one of its most famous masters. I have never had the privilege of seeing a single one of the shows covered in the 1954 to 1981 period of the book except for the movie version of “West Side Story.” So my perspective is definitely that of an outsider.
Sondheim has too many credits as both a lyricist and composer to detail here, as the book does in “A Note About the Author.” Suffice to say, quoting the inside cover, the author has won “seven Tonys, an Academy Award, seven Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors.”
I like the cover because along with the title (a song from “Sunday in the Park with George”), it includes a promising subtitle: “Collected Lyrics with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes.” The author delivers on that promise with critiques of not only his own work but that of other famous songwriters: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Noel Coward and Oscar Hammerstein II included.
In the preface, Sondheim gives his mantra for songwriting, as he says “to be written in stone.” These are:
“Content Dictates Form
Less Is More
God Is In The Details
All in the service of Clarity without which nothing else matters.”
He explains each and gives examples, referred to as numbered “Sins,” such as “redundant adjectival padding, architectural laziness, and inconsistency” to name only a few. The 421 pages of this coffee table-size volume give you all the lyrics from all his shows, some working lyric pages marked with revisions and black and white photos from the productions: Saturday Night, West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, The Frogs, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Merrily We Roll Along.
If you’re not familiar with Sondheim’s name, you may know at least this one song from A Little Night Music that was recorded by Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins, Barbra Streisand and countless other artists:
“Isn’t it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground
You in mid-air
Send in the clowns”
Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat, Published by Alfred A. Knopf