Red silk is the best blood

David Thomson

  • Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-81), with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes by Stephen Sondheim
    Virgin, 445 pp, £30.00, October 2010, ISBN 978 0 7535 2258 5

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.

A photo album shows Sondheim side by side with his collaborators in what seems like merry company most of the time. But there are grudges – unexpectedly scathing or complaining essays on lyricists who have violated his strict code on the way words should be put to music – as well as stern instructions on keeping your rhymes in order. The book builds a portrait of a cool, almost chilly master. He says he loves collaboration, but you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of his waspish principles. He is a wizard, but not a gentle or benign one. He wasn’t raised that way.

Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born in New York City in 1930 to parents of German Jewish descent. His father was a dress manufacturer and his mother a designer and they lived in the San Remo apartment building on Central Park West. When Stephen was ten, his father left the family and Stephen realised that he loathed his mother (she had taught him indifference). He was sent to a boarding school in Pennsylvania, where he made friends with the son of Oscar Hammerstein, the lyricist for Richard Rodgers. (The young Sondheim went to see their pioneering show Oklahoma! when it opened in 1943.) Hammerstein recognised Sondheim’s talent, began to educate him in musical theatre and became a father-figure. It comes as a modest surprise now when Sondheim makes clear how much at odds he feels with Hammerstein’s expansive populism. ‘Oh, what a beautiful mornin’!’ and ‘You are the promised kiss of springtime’ are lyrics everyone knows, but not ones Sondheim can hear without squirming.

He went to Williams College in Massachusetts and acted a little: the part he craved was the young killer in Emlyn Williams’s Night Must Fall. He had to smoke for that role, and continued for decades. After graduating in 1950, he studied with Milton Babbitt. He may have been flirting with thoughts of classical composition but Babbitt wanted to talk about showtunes. Sondheim dabbled in movies and visited the Italian set of Beat the Devil, where he played chess with Humphrey Bogart. There were apprentice works, not produced or not successful, and then in 1954, Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for Saturday Night. Based on a book by Julius Epstein (one of the screenwriting twins who were major contributors to Casablanca), and set in 1929, it told the story of a group of young men who try to make a killing on the stock market.

It was that show, and his sharp lyrics, that got Sondheim invited to collaborate on West Side Story (1957), where he worked in lofty company – writer Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein and director Jerome Robbins. The show was not just a hit but a turning point in musical theatre. Today, Sondheim feels he sometimes had the Jets and Sharks speaking too archly or poetically – his aim is to write natural, conversational lyrics. Two years later, worried about being classified as merely a lyricist, he hesitated over doing the words for Gypsy. But Hammerstein urged him to agree because it meant working with Ethel Merman. Another incentive may have been the chance to depict a monstrous mother:

Everything’s coming up Rose!
Everything’s coming up roses! …
For me!
For me! FOR ME!

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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