“Content dictates form.” “Less is more.” “God is in the details.” These three statements sum up Stephen Sondheim’s artistic credo according to Finishing the Hat, whose title seems to establish a quizzical connection between writing lyrics and millinery. The first two criteria are the standard guidelines for modernist architecture of the twentieth century, so maybe the millinery metaphor is encapsulated in the third. Still, reading this book, I have trouble understanding Sondheim as the musical equivalent to either Mies van der Rohe or Elsa Schiaparelli. Perhaps it will all eventually become clear. Of two scheduled volumes dealing with his work in musical theater, this is the first, tracking his career from an early piece titled Saturday Night (1954) up to Merrily We Roll Along (1981). Highlights include Bernstein’s West Side Story, for which Sondheim supplied the lyrics only, as well as his best-known musicals (Gypsy, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd), which feature both his lyrics and his own musical score. We’re not given the complete book for each of the musicals, only their lyrics, prefaced by a summary of the dramatic context, and a brief narrative recounting the circumstances that led to the creation of the work under discussion. Sondheim has written a preface for the volume, plus a brief essay on rhyming as it is used for song-writing; and he makes dozens of insertions in the body of the text, commenting on the success or failure of particular songs.
He also adds a series of reflections on other lyricists of musical theater, restricting himself, however, to those no longer living. It’s a prudent choice, given that Sondheim isn’t a man to cloud the expression of his judgments with considerations like politeness or collegial complicity. Were his rivals still alive, they might want to take out a contract on him. Solely on the basis of the irony and satire characteristic of his musicals, you could have guessed that he wouldn’t fall all over himself to be kind. But the fact is he’s just as hard on himself, knocking single lines or entire songs of his own if they’ve come to seem pretentious or gawky to him. A reviewer would have to work hard to give a worse account of Sondheim’s lyrics than their author does. By the same token, we wouldn’t expect any scholar of musical theater to make as many unflattering comments about it as you’ll find in Sondheim’s text. In an era when “going negative” about any person, place, animal, or inanimate object is regarded as a career no-no, Sondheim’s approach strikes me as fresh and honest, a tactic well worth adopting. It’s the tone of twentieth century New York, witty, sardonic, deflationary, and only seldom cornered into praising anything that actually exists.
The opening sentences of Sondheim’s preface establishes that he doesn’t consider himself a poet in the usual sense:
This book is a contradiction in terms. Theater lyrics are not written to be read but to be sung, and to be sung as parts of a larger structure: musical comedy, musical play, revue—“musical” will suffice. Furthermore, almost all of the lyrics in these pages were written not just to be sung but to be sung in particular musicals by individual characters in specific situations. A printed collection of them, bereft of their dramatic circumstances and the music which gives them life, is a dubious proposition. Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems. Poems are written to be read, silently or aloud, not sung. Some lyrics, awash with florid imagery, present themselves as poetry, but music only underscores (yes) the self-consciousness of the effort. In theatrical fact, it is usually the plainer and flatter lyric that soars poetically when infused with music.
Sondheim’s insistence that his lyrics don’t have enormous interest or point separated from the dramatic context for which he wrote them is fair. On the other hand, how useful are the plot summaries and descriptions of the individual scenes provided in this volume? The problem with this format is that dramatic plot and its sequence of scenes come to effective life only when performed. The summaries offered are tedious to read and don’t do a lot to animate the lyrics they attempt to contextualize. That part of the audience already familiar with Sondheim’s musicals won’t need the summaries, of course, and it’s safe to say that the most enthusiastic readers of this book will be his existing fans (myself included), who will welcome the chance to linger over lyrics they’ve heard but not memorized. Precisely because of Sondheim’s preference for song-writing that is rooted in character, and a literary practice that prefers flatness and plainness to what is “poetic,” I doubt this collection by itself will win new converts. To appreciate Sondheim the lyricist, you have to see (and hear) the musicals themselves, and you can begin get your feet wet by searching for him on YouTube.
Sondheim’s mind is more ad hoc and emotional than analytical and scholarly. He doesn’t discuss the difference between meter in music and meter in poetry. He doesn’t tell us that English-language poems after Chaucer were traditionally written in accentual-syllabic meter, whereas song lyrics manage with accentual meter alone, not restricting themselves to a regular syllable count. How so? Well, because the note value in a given bar of music can divide itself into smaller units to accommodate extra syllables while maintaining the governing beat. To add or subtract syllables in a metrical line of poetry, however, risks derailing the meter. It’s true that many hymns and songs are quite strictly accentual-syllabic, but popular song usually loosens the syllable count; and lyrics for musicals go still further in that direction.
Making his distinction between poems and lyrics, Sondheim oversimplifies the more general question of the relationship between words and music. A full discussion would require, first, some reflections on the fact that all classical Greek lyrics were sung to musical accompaniment (it’s the Greek lyre that gives us the word “lyric”), as well as Anglo-Saxon poems like Deor and Beowulf. If Sappho’s poems were sung, that should be sufficient refutation of the claim that musical lyrics can’t have all the qualities we expect in poems as such. There are also the wonderful sung poems in Shakespeare’s plays, such as “Fear no more the heat o’the sun” and “Full fathom five thy father lies,” not to mention a number of subtle lyrics in Dryden’s dramatic works. Bach’s Passions are interspersed with poetic arias of some verbal complexity; and if the King James Bible qualifies as poetry, then Handel’s arias and choruses in Messiah amount to great poetry set to music. A few opera librettists composed arias worth reading without musical accompaniment: Lorenzo da Ponte (The Marriage of Figaro), Arrigo Boïto (Otello and Falstaff), and Hugo von Hoffmanstal (Der Rosenkavalier). Even Sondheim acknowledges the high quality of the arias in Auden’s and Kallman’s The Rake’s Progress. He also has unqualified praise for the lyrics Richard Wilbur wrote for Candide, and in fact Wilbur has collected some of those in his books. (Digression: why have producers of new Broadway musicals mounted since Candide never again asked a professional poet to provide lyrics for them?)
The problem intensifies when we stop to consider that many poets, Auden among them, have used the title “Song” for some of their poems, even though no tune is provided. What does it mean to call a poem without musical scoring a “song”? Short answer: a “song” without musical accompaniment is a poem whose sound qualities hold more interest than the poem’s paraphrasable content. I don’t know of any poem designated as a “song,” that is composed without meter and rhyme. For that matter, about 99% of all pop music rhymes, the rhyming skillful in varying degrees, with country music lyrics generally the best. Meanwhile, Sondheim insists that lyrics in musical theater must rhyme, and that the rhymes must be perfect rhymes, not near or slant equivalents. He doesn’t provide a justification of this requirement, and we assume the stricture is based on nothing more or less substantial than audience expectations and the conventions of the musical genre. Somehow Sondheim’s not bothered by the contradiction between his insistence that, on one hand, lyrics must reflect the linguistic earmarks of the character singing them and, on the other, the fact that no one speaks in rhyme. If you aren’t bothered by the non-naturalistic aspect of rhymes in solos, dialogue, and choruses, it’s odd to become incensed as Sondheim does when a character’s lyrics use long words and elaborate metaphors, features that he dismisses as falsely “poetic” and unsuitable for the actual dramatis personae of the work.
The truth is, rhyming belongs to the “entertainment” component in musical theater. Rhymes entertain even when they don’t perform an important semantic or structural function. They take us back to the childhood world of “Hickory, dickory dock” and “Row, row, row your boat,” of “Jabberwocky” and Dr. Seuss. Let’s acknowledge it in so many words: we like musical theater because it’s entertaining, not because it is profound. Sondheim comes close to saying as much when he comments that Othello is a richer play than Verdi’s Otello and that Shaw’s Pygmalion has more real content than My Fair Lady. If richness and profundity are your primary goal, then you don’t devote your talents to musicals. They have their moments of sadness and disappointment, but there is no tragic musical. All right, but do musical comedies at least have some serious content? As with most artistic phenomena, it’s a question of degree. Sondheim refers to theater historians who single out Showboat and Oklahoma! as first efforts to move the lightweight, unambitious form of musical theater current in the 1920s and 1930s toward an art with more content, one that could present and fill out characters of complexity and depth. He inscribes himself in this movement and insists that it is the source of his own practice, which should be understood as more serious than what the general run of authors of musicals offer. We can acknowledge the favorable comparison, but that doesn’t establish a magisterial degree of seriousness. Sondheim is the greatest living auteur in musical theater, and his works certainly have more content than the bits of fluff that kept Broadway box offices busy in 1925. But they don’t have the complexity and depth that we discover in the best of his contemporaries who write for legitimate theater. That isn’t to say that his work is valueless. No one wants to live seven days a week in the mode of the sublime or of tragic grandeur. Popular art forms give us a break from tedium and spiritual pinnacles both, and why not? We need them, but we should know what it is we need, and why.
To get some perspective, I’d like to extend this discussion and comment on the extremely high value that British critic Christopher Ricks assigns to Bob Dylan, whom he has named “the greatest living American poet.” It’s a ranking that probably influenced the decision of the Norton Anthology of English Poetry’s editors to include Dylan’s lyrics (without musical scoring) in the fifth edition. This was a misguided choice. When we hear Dylan sing the lyrics he writes in his own sui generis voice, with the musical accompaniment he has worked out for them, our attention is fully engaged, and we may also feel that he is saying something important above and beyond the sonic appeal of the song. But in print the lyrics don’t function as actual poems do, in fact, they often verge on a silliness hard to swallow when combined with Dylan’s default mode of condescension. When we read them, we can’t avoid asking ourselves what the-devil they really mean, and the answer, my friend, isn’t blowin’ in the wind. A gold chain is a fairly boring object when not adorning someone’s neck, and the same goes for pop lyrics outside their musical context.
The music theater rival that Sondheim dislikes the most is Noël Coward, whose lyrics he describes as too clever and brittle to inspire confidence and empathy. But what’s the point of applying standards belonging to late 20th-century America to works conceived for the British public of the 1920s and ’30s. To appreciate works of art from earlier eras always requires a little archeological spadework. No one could enjoy a play by Racine or an opera by Wagner without a lot of preliminary study. It’s precisely Coward’s overplus of wit and verbal acrobatics that makes his lyrics fun to read on the page, even though they might be distracting or hard to follow word by word when sung. Coward was forthright enough to say he had “only a talent to amuse,” as though that talent were nothing at all. Like one of his models, W.S. Gilbert, (whom Sondheim also dislikes intensely), Coward had considerable skill with meter and rhyme, and that’s another reason his lyrics are interesting when we encounter them through print alone. Though I’m happy to be in the audience of Sondheim’s musicals, only a few of his lyrics repay a cold examination on the page: “I’m Still Here” (from Follies), “Send in the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music), some of the choruses from The Frogs, and the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” from that work. These engage us partly because Sondheim sometimes overcomes his resistance to being verbally clever and deploys a Cowardesque wit in the development of the lyrics. As for the other lyrics, though rather drab when shorn of musical accompaniment, they are effective in their dramatic setting, and none ever falls completely flat. They don’t succeed as poems, as Sondheim’s preface states; instead, they have a different ambition and use.
I’ve gone farther than the second mile in the negative direction, but I want to conclude by saying that I found this book compulsive reading. Sondheim’s commentary on musical theater, as practiced by others and himself, is riveting and often has a relevance that extends to legitimate theater as well. The narratives of the origin of his concepts for particular works are fascinating, along with the anecdotes he tells about developing them with his collaborators, a roster that includes the most celebrated talents in the musical theater of his time. His discussion of rival lyricists, though unforgiving, even so marks out a very clear artistic profile for each figure, altering in small ways or large our sense of their accomplishment. The strangest omission in the book is a discussion of his role as composer. We admire Sondheim not only for his theatrical ideas and his lyrics but also for the music, which is anything but routine or inept. (He studied composition with Milton Babbit, and is familiar with musical classics of the past two centuries, as well as film scores by the likes of Korngold and Steiner. In fact, one of my favorite film scores is the one he wrote for Stavisky.) Why doesn’t he discuss the compositional process in its relationship to theater? How did his work as a lyricist change once he began composing scores for his musicals, and not just the words? Sondheim never goes into these topics, but that means that he has room to do so in the second volume, which I will certainly want to read if it’s as informative as this one. He may by then have mustered the courage, too, to weigh in on his living contemporaries, a critique that couldn’t fail to be gripping. The chance to speak freely about, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s works or Les Misérables would be well worth the price of hiring a bodyguard from Pinkerton and wearing a bullet-proof vest. Assassination attempts would soon peter out, and Sondheim would be left center stage under a pink spot singing the now-classic standard from Follies, the wisecracking, subacid “I’m Still Here,” which begins, “Good times and bum times,/ I’ve seen them all, and, my dear,/ I’m still here.”