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!

It’s a telling moment for Sondheim: the drama queen exulting in her daughter’s triumph on stage, yet nearly breaking down at the same time because she wants attention too. Sondheim has always been drawn to the rivalry in partnership and the fracturing of love, but above all to the stress of success, and it seems clear from this book that his commitment to theatre is not unlike the passion of the gambler, who knows that today’s victory may be the prelude to tomorrow’s loss.

Not that you’ll find any such confession here. Another thing missing is the period beginning in 1981, and that means Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins and Passion. In a book whose design gives the impression that every last thought or aside has been crammed in, whole masterpieces have been left out. Another volume, bringing us up to date, is planned. Still, the cut-off is disappointing, especially when this book’s title can only be explained by a reading of the Seurat musical, Sunday in the Park with George, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and is arguably the closest Sondheim has come to a self-portrait. Being a mystery, or his own puzzle, is an inextricable part of Sondheim’s art.

For all the pictures it contains, Finishing the Hat doesn’t give much sense of the life Sondheim has led on or off stage. He may have had love affairs but not one hint is dropped. There are 12 pictures of Lee Remick. The excellent biography by Meryle Secrest reckons that they adored each other, but that there was no sex. Remick opened in Anyone Can Whistle, one of Sondheim’s flops but a show that means enough to him for him to disparage the idea that its title song (sung by Remick) is his ‘personal statement’.

This makes for a nervous page in the book, discussing the lyric that concludes:

What’s hard is simple,
What’s natural comes hard.
Maybe you could show me
How to let go,
Lower my guard,
Learn to be free.
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me.

‘To believe that “Anyone Can Whistle” is my credo is to believe that I’m the prototypical Repressed Intellectual and that explains everything about me,’ Sondheim protests. ‘Perhaps being tagged with a cliché shouldn’t bother me, but it does, and to my chagrin I realise it means that I care more about how I’m perceived than I wish I did. I’d like to think this concern hasn’t affected my work, I wouldn’t be surprised if it has.’

I don’t think the charge most levelled at Sondheim is actually ‘Repressed Intellectual’. He’s more an obsessive than an intellectual. Secrest tells a story of a meeting Sondheim had with Alan Ayckbourn. This is what Ayckbourn reported:

He speaks very, very fast and very, very quietly and he tends, certainly with people he doesn’t know, to stare anywhere but at the person. I talk very, very fast and very, very quietly and don’t stare at people either. So there were two guys – one of us could have left the table and the other would never have known it.

It seems Sondheim has been reticent about his gayness (not much explored in the work – the lead figure in Company is gay, but does he know it?), and many people have described him as distant and forbidding. But on the stage there is as much liveliness, questioning and anxiety as any American artist of his time has delivered.

After Gypsy, Sondheim’s reputation was established, but he never became a reliable hit-maker. He was so despondent about the flop of Merrily We Roll Along (in which a songwriter/movie producer looks back on his life, his wives and collaborators) that he declared he was giving up theatre to write mystery novels. He rallied after James Lapine, a new collaborator, suggested doing something about Seurat and his painting of a Sunday afternoon at la Grande Jatte. That show ran for 604 performances, yet its ten Tony nominations led only to design prizes – there really is a Broadway faction that believes Sondheim is too far from the mainstream (as if a mainstream could be found anymore).

Sunday in the Park with George was followed by Into the Woods (764 performances), his most crowd-pleasing show thanks to the cosy fallacy that it was really about fairy stories. But then came Assassins (only 101 performances, possibly because it was about the potential or actual assassins of US presidents) and Passion (280 – despite winning the Tony for best musical). So being Stephen Sondheim has never been straightforward. ‘What’s natural comes hard.’

For decades now – since Company (1970), I’d say – most people have thought of the works as Sondheim musicals, just as Hitchcock films belong to their director. But like Hitchcock, Sondheim has always relied on collaborators. This book is dedicated to nine men: Julius Epstein, Arthur Laurents, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), George Furth (who did the book for Company and Merrily We Roll Along), James Goldman (Follies), John Weidman (Pacific Overtures and Assassins); Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd); and last but not least James Lapine (whose work is not covered in this volume, but who would do both book and direction on Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Passion, and who Sondheim thinks is the only person he knows who can do a book and direct).

Sondheim says that everything he does is aimed at serving the book: in musicals this means the story arc, the dramatic script and what people say when they’re not singing. Anyone who has done musicals will attest to the importance of this. Sondheim has never contributed the book to any of his shows – at least he’s never taken credit for it. (Hitchcock never took a writing credit.) In addition to his three masterpieces for Sondheim, Lapine has directed other plays, a revival of The Diary of Anne Frank, for example; he directed the film Impromptu, and wrote a few plays you haven’t heard of. It’s clear that, along with all the others – from Hugh Wheeler to Hal Prince (a six-time director for Sondheim), from Angela Lansbury to Bernadette Peters – he has to feel lucky to serve Sondheim. It was Cole Porter who was supposed to have marvelled to Rodgers and Hart: ‘It takes two of you?’ Yet many musicals come out of long-term partnerships: George and Ira Gershwin; Rodgers and Hart; Rodgers and Hammerstein; Sammy Cahn with Jule Styne, Jimmy Van Heusen and others; Lerner and Loewe; Fred Ebb and John Kander – throw in Gilbert and Sullivan.

Sondheim’s short essays on other lyricists go hand in hand with his introductory essay, ‘Rhyme and Its Reasons’, and an introduction in which he issues ‘Ground Rules’: ‘content dictates form’; ‘less is more’; ‘god is in the details.’ Yet these are modest compared with the insistence on meticulous rhyme and stress (‘Mis-stressing is a cardinal sin, and as an occasional sinner myself, it drives me crazy.’) So he tells us about true rhymes, near rhymes, visual rhymes, regional rhymes, assonance, consonance, run-ons and identities. In asserting the necessity for true rhyme, he quotes an unnamed pop music lyricist who once said: ‘I hate all true rhymes. I think they only allow you a certain limited range … I’m not a great believer in perfect rhymes. I’m just a believer in feelings that come across. If the craft gets in the way of the feelings, then I’ll take the feelings any day.’ To which Sondheim replies:

The notion that good rhymes and the expression of emotion are contradictory qualities, that neatness equals lifelessness is, to borrow a disapproving phrase from my old counterpoint text, ‘the refuge of the destitute’. Claiming that true rhyme is the enemy of substance is the sustaining excuse of lyricists who are unable to rhyme well with any consistency … A good lyric should not only have something to say but a way of saying it as clearly and forcefully as possible – and that involves rhyming cleanly. A perfect rhyme can make a mediocre line bright and a good one brilliant. A near rhyme only dampens the impact.

There are famous lyricists who get a headmaster’s lashing – one is Noël Coward and another is Lorenz Hart. Sondheim is brilliant on Coward – ‘brittle and sentimental’, he says, and then adds: ‘condescending’. He allows that Coward has ‘charm’, but ‘the expression,’ he says, ‘of someone trying to feel the emotion that isn’t there.’ I think he’s right, but his point is irrelevant to the extraordinary, impudent ease of Coward and the teasing acidity of his charm. Well, you’re English, Sondheim might say. Yes, I am, and it’s correct that Coward means most in England, if only because so much of his creative identity lay in reticence and even horror about naked feeling. But Sondheim should understand that. It’s not just an English shyness.

He goes on to call Lorenz Hart the ‘laziest of the pre-eminent lyricists’: the man slurs his rhymes and makes errors of syntax. He pours scorn on the line ‘Your looks are laughable, unphotographable’ from ‘My Funny Valentine’: ‘Surely what Hart means is “unphotogenic”.’ Suddenly he sounds like a fusspot. I don’t think Hart meant, or needed to mean, ‘unphotogenic’. It wasn’t that he was clinging to rhyme when he wrote ‘unphotographable’. Rather, he felt his valentine (it’s a song from the 1937 Babes in Arms) had a quality that’s beyond being photographed. This failure to get the message is rare in Sondheim, but it’s revealing, and the talk of picturing may remind us how hard he’s worked to change his own look. As a young man, he had a depressive, untidy, wolfish look; now he is bearded, handsome and nearly immaculate. Technically, he has led our eye away from his gangster mouth to his saintly eyes. I can’t believe he doesn’t know it.

There’s more on Hart. Sondheim takes ‘Ten Cents a Dance’ to task, and mocks the ‘misplaced’ stress in

Seven to midnight, I hear drums.
Loudly the saxophone blows.

Ridiculous, he says, for the stress falls on ‘hear’ and not ‘drums’. But isn’t that ‘error’ part of the song’s poignancy? Isn’t it the misdirected stress that uncovers the pain of the experience? For all his slovenliness, Hart’s songs live on in the heads of people born long after his death in 1943. He was a wreck of a man, a sad case, but his unique (and daring) dismay was a formative influence on Sondheim. It is in Hart more than in any other lyricist that one can hear something of Sondheim’s unease about relationships. For example, from Hart’s ‘I Wish I Were in Love Again’:

Now I’m sane, but …
I would rather be gaga!
The pulled-out fur
Of cat and cur,
The fine mismating of a him and her –
I’ve learned my lesson, but I wish I were
in love again!

It’s in the fine mismatings of hims and hers that Sondheim is most unsettling and comes closest to tragedy, while working in a form – the Broadway musical – that was once insistent on staying cheerful. The notes on other lyricists are smart, but disconcerting. They’re like Nabokov tearing strips off Edmund Wilson over Eugene Onegin, or Norman Mailer beating up on his rivals for Heavyweight Champion of the Novel. And they tread all over the melancholy Sondheim shares with Hart.

Sondheim once wrote a play of his own, Getting Away with Murder (that old theme), but it flopped. Here, in his introduction, he delivers one of his many ambiguous statements:

I’ve been asked many times why I don’t write the books for my own musicals, since I treat lyrics as short plays whenever I can. The key word in that sentence is ‘short’. I’m by nature a playwright, but without the necessary basic skill: the ability to tell a story that holds an audience’s attention for more than a few minutes. Writing plays is, in my view, the most difficult of the literary arts.

Lyrics ‘are not written to be read but sung’ (that is Sondheim himself). So will a good recording deliver them adequately? That would be better than nothing, but Sondheim must be seen in a live performance, because he is more than a song-writer. He is a dramatist. Thus, the recent film of Sweeney Todd (by Tim Burton, and generally approved by Sondheim) is horribly bloody and foolishly sexy, while Sweeney Todd on stage (in its several forms) is a tragic ritual of unmatched intensity where red silk is the best blood.

Occasionally, Sondheim does reveal his real ambition, as when he said of Sunday in the Park with George, that Lapine recommended the Seurat painting and observed that a main character was missing – the artist. ‘Once he said that, I knew that there was a real play there,’ Sondheim said. That recognition is creatively crucial, even if Lapine wrote the play. And although he’s worked with various book-writers, Sondheim’s themes or anxieties have stayed consistent. In great part, they provide a commentary on the impossibility of the form Sondheim once aspired to, the classical Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Those works were inhabited by Broadway people, sure of their prettiness, their hopes and their happy resolution, whereas Sondheim has insisted on characters from the modern novel or everyday noir, lives waylaid by accident or ordinary human mistakes. When Hammerstein wrote ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ for Carousel (to be sung for ever by football fans), he meant it. Sondheim never had that easy-going confidence.

He has made brave attempts to celebrate the collective in a stricken group – Company, Follies, Into the Woods – but the happy endings are undermined and betrayed by the parade of real, smart, but helplessly private and lonely people. There are some great songs of unguarded exposure, love songs and laments – like ‘Losing My Mind’ from Follies:

I dim the lights
And think about you,
Spend sleepless nights
To think about you.
You said you loved me,
Or were you just being kind?
Or am I losing my mind?

This is the Sondheim who loves all his characters, his songs and his companies but knows he cannot quite belong to them, even if he has made them. There is a song in Into the Woods where hope and crushing sadness sit side by side:

Sometimes people leave you
halfway through the wood
Others may deceive you.
You decide what’s good.
You decide alone.
But no one is alone.

At 80 Sondheim is still loyal to this paradox. He dwells in the modern dilemmas: can we believe in feelings? At a cheering show, are we in company or alone?