We gave it an A
Stephen Sondheim is not a deity, contrary to facetious song lyrics he contributed to the 2010 biographical musical revue Sondheim on Sondheim: ”Wrote the score to Sweeney Todd/With a nod/To de Sade/Well, he’s odd/Well, he’s God!” But at a mortal 81 years old, Sondheim is a national treasure, a giant in the world of musical theater who changed the structure and sound of the form in 20th-century masterpieces including West Side Story, Follies, Company, and Sweeney Todd. Speaking of heaven, though, here’s Look, I Made a Hat, the second part of Sondheim’s two-volume collection of lyrics, this one spanning 1981-2011, with additional bits and pieces. Talmudically thorough and devilishly diverting with what the author refers to as ”attendant comments, amplifications, dogmas, harangues, digressions, anecdotes, and miscellany,” the book is divine.
It’s also even more magnanimously authoritative than the first book. Sondheim dives in with an account of creating his 1984 triumph Sunday in the Park With George (both volumes take their title from a song sung in the show by 19th-century French painter Georges Seurat; Mandy Patinkin was memorable as Georges, and Bernadette Peters unbeatable as the artist’s muse, Dot). The chapter includes a perceptive appreciation of James Lapine, who wrote the book for Sunday and became a close collaborator, inspiring the lyricist to write ”with more formal looseness…allowing songs to become fragmentary, like musicalized snatches of dialogue.” The author also discusses (and includes the full lyrics to) Into the Woods, Assassins, Passion, and the 14-year creative saga of the project variously called Wise Guys, Bounce, and Road Show.
The handsomely designed book, like the first volume, contains illuminating reproductions of pages from the author’s beloved legal pads on which he works out rhyme schemes, as well as annotated scripts and pages of musical notations. And the second volume is brimming — a word Sondheim would probably dismiss as ”infelicitous” — with precise, vigorous, instructive, sharp-tongued, and often very funny comments. In one rewarding digression, he explains how ”the value of true critics is as surveyors; the value of reviewers is as publicists. That, and that alone, makes them necessary.” In another diversionary essay, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Tony- and Grammy-award-laden Kennedy Center Honors recipient notes that ”awards have three things to offer: cash, confidence, and bric-a-brac.”
Sondheim doesn’t shy away from discussing creative struggle and failure (in the Sondheim Universe, a particular kind of failure consists of abandoning the search for perfection in a certain lyric — and resulting punishment is a recurrent ”wince of shame”). What he refuses to discuss, with simple dignity, is his personal life: ”This book is going to be no more satisfying to the seriously prurient than the previous one.” Look, I Made a Hat, together with Finishing the Hat, makes an enormously satisfying journal by one of the great theatrical minds of our time, a guide and touchstone for who knows how many future great theatrical minds. Meanwhile, Stephen Sondheim’s confession that ”I have successfully avoided enjoying opera all my life” is reassuring proof that the man, however godlike, is indeed human. A