Finishing the Hat (2010), By Stephen Sondheim


Its triumph was brief and lovely, and the Golden Age of American Musicals, 1930s to 1950s, is now some sixty years past. When I think of it, I think of Oklahoma, South Pacific, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, Miss Liberty, Brigadoon, State Fair, Porgy and Bess, Showboat and a few others. And, of course, leading the long-ago parade are Rogers and Hammerstein, followed closely by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Dorothy Fields and a handful of others. “Oklahoma,” “Happy Talk,” “The Girl that I Marry,” “I’ll Know,” “What’s the Use of Wondrin”–your lucky old ear lets you hear that there hasn’t been such great songwriting since.

Yes, that Golden Age does not suit these times; it’s a beautiful, selective memory.

Sondheim, mentored by Hammerstein who became his “surrogate father,” and haunted by the Golden Age, is terribly bright and mostly on the defensive. The real appeal of Finishing the Hat is not the very distinguished if academic brief advice to writers of song lyrics (to include a delineation of forms of rhyming and how they work, or don’t, in the lyric); nor is it the laying out of nearly all the lyrics Sondheim wrote with annotations about them and the shows they were in and their performers–Merman, Mostel, Nelson, Lansbury, Remick–which is tiresome; but, perhaps ironically, the pull of his book is his pithy collection, spread out amidst his chapters on his own shows and lyrics, of would-be lowering thumbnail appraisals of his Golden peers.

Sondheim, probably known best for “Send In The Clowns,” and presiding imperiously but with good humor over the demise of the classical Broadway musical, turns out to be perhaps the most condescending lyricist and songwriter in the Pantheon (you’d think we ought to sneak him into it mainly out of nostalgia for what came before him) and perhaps a little bitter about his being just a few minutes too late for the party. Often gently admiringly but usually somewhat pettily he takes after the great lyricists before him for less-than-true rhyming, out-of-character diction, condescension, insincerity, nastiness, “sloppiness,” and the occasional abrupt flight from the present lyrical context. But also he does so with an implicit contempt for the audience as incapable of appreciating other than the most direct and correct “true” rhyming and most strenuously made “clarity,” that audience degenerating in style and taste from the 1960s on as Bernstein tries forlornly to replace Rogers and Hammerstein and the abrupt, self-conscious West Side Story interrupts the beautiful wonder in earlier great shows of a simple but sublime and profound national mythology. Albeit he is hard on himself at times, Sondheim, besides searching them for disreputable attitudes and false emotion, nitpicks Hammerstein, Fields, Porter, Coward (he is considered partially part of us), Berlin and others, all dead and hence, by Sondheim’s criteria, acceptable to go after, by finding lyrics which seem to him “sloppy.”

Here’s a typical example made of Irving Berlin:

“Scrupulously clear though Berlin is, I’m happy to say that he, like all of us, is capable of the unintentionally miscalculated line. One that makes me giggle is in ‘The Girl That I Marry’ from Annie get Your Gun:

Her nails will be polished
And in her hair
She’ll wear a gardenia
And I’ll be there.

“Nesting among the follicles?”

That seems not even a nitpick but a scrupulous, scrambling, tiny failure of imagination. (If Herb from Toledo in Row O, Seat 8, thinks Berlin’s vocalist meant to become a micro-organism living in the pompadour of his girl’s curls, then we’ll have to believe that Broadway musicals have always exceeded their audiences.)

But most happily:

The Golden Age of the American musical lives sumptuously in jazz. Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, Nancy Wilson, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Andre Previn, Ahmad Jamal, Kenny Barron, Eliane Elias, Bill Charlap and many, many other great performers have created a prevailing refuge for the marvelous songs of Rogers and Hammerstein, Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and the others and extended them into newly beautiful forms. I suspect that largely in that wonderful unexpected rescue will this transporting music still be heard long from now.