Finishing the Hat: The Collected Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim (volume 1) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes

David Thomson writes:

Stephen Sondheim is America’s master of musical theatre, as long as we are prepared for the work to be brilliant but not relaxed. His is a voice of solitude struggling to believe in company, and that of a lifelong game-player, so be careful about taking this book at face value as an autobiography, or as giving the whole story. Regard it as pointing a way out of the woods that may only take us deeper into them. It provides lyrics, no matter that Sondheim admits to enjoying the music more. As any admirer knows, his gift is the unmatched dance of music and lyrics, the nearly stammered wordsmith skill that he calls ordinary conversation, but which sounds to most of us like a rare and impossibly intricate utterance of hesitation and desperation – people in a mess talking like wits. As the subtitle promises, we also get all those extras, so promisingly opinionated and cranky, beyond and apart from the lyrics themselves. There are manuscript pages of lyrics written, crossed out and rewritten, stains and all, as if to indicate midnight toil and second thoughts. This is a furious worker.

(LRB 16 December 2010)

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