The Tao of Steve
By Stephen Sondheim
When Stephen Sondheim turned 80 in March, he was feted with a host of honors and celebrations: multiple all-star concerts in New York, London, and D.C.; a biographical Broadway revue of his work that skillfully melded his video reminiscences with live performances; and perhaps most remarkable of all, the naming of a new Broadway house as the Stephen Sondheim Theater. Such extravagance of gesture while the object of veneration is still alive is practically unheard of. In our time, only John Paul II has been fast-tracked toward sainthood quite this quickly.
But Sondheim-mania was not occasioned solely by the man’s longevity. The passion of those I call Steve-adores has been bubbling for years, reaching full boil with the simultaneous occurrence of octogenarian status and the publication of Finishing the Hat, the long-awaited first volume of his collected lyrics. Since the lyrics have been printed elsewhere, this handsome, oversized book is most notable for the contents described in its provocative subtitle: “With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes.” Here the master songwriter gets to be critic, pedant, historian, gossip, and, in what he has often called his favorite role, teacher. It’s a beautifully packaged retrospective that goes a long way to explaining to the uninitiated the passion of the Steve-adore.
Sondheim was just 24 in 1954 when he wrote both music and lyrics for a Broadway show, Saturday Night, but circumstances prevented it from receiving a full-scale production for more than 40 years. But thanks to his precocious talent and lofty social connections, plus the imprimatur of his unofficial adoptive father, Oscar Hammerstein II, he was asked to join a trio of seasoned pros—composer Leonard Bernstein, librettist Arthur Laurents, and choreographer/director Jerome Robbins—to help Bernstein write lyrics for an updated version of Romeo and Juliet that eventually became West Side Story in 1957. (Sondheim’s input proved so substantial that Bernstein eventually gave him full credit as lyricist.)
It proved an astonishing debut, even though most critics failed to cite him by name in their reviews. The lyrics were fresh, hard-edged (for their time), and they captured the raw energy of discontented urban youth. Here’s Tony, exuding restless anticipation in “Something’s Coming”:
With a click, with a shock,
Phone’ll jingle, door’ll knock,
Open the latch.
Something’s coming, don’t know
when, but it’s soon.
Catch the moon,
Around the corner
Or whistling down the river
Or here in the teen gang members’ comic attempt to explain their delinquency in “Gee, Officer Krupke”:
Dear kindly judge, your Honor,
My parents treat me rough.
With all their marijuana,
They won’t give me a puff.
They didn’t want to have me.
But somehow I was had.
Leapin’ Lizards, that’s why I’m so bad!
Sondheim was perfectly aware that gangs, even in 1957, didn’t scream “Leapin’ Lizards!”, but replacing it with “Motherfucker!” would not have been comme il faut on Broadway in the ‘50s. In fact, several of the lyrics in West Side Story have proved embarrassing to him. As he points out in the book’s illuminating and copious notes, lines like “It’s alarming how charming I feel” from “I Feel Pretty” are scarcely character-appropriate for a Puerto Rican teenager and make him blush to this day.
Clunkers aside, he had at a young age helped create an American classic, whose songs have become indelible additions to the cultural lexicon. (This was in large measure due to the Oscar-winning film version a few years later; despite the success of the Broadway show, West Side Story’s songs weren’t widely known until they reached the populace via the hugely popular film soundtrack. I first became aware of Sondheim when Life magazine did a full-color feature on the film, using his then-controversial lyrics to “America” as call-outs: “Life is all right in America/If you’re all-white in America”).
Two years after West Side Story, Sondheim collaborated on Gypsy, a highly fictionalized bio of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Teaming again with Laurents and Robbins (Jule Styne was the composer this time), Sondheim helped create what many consider the apotheosis of the classic musical theater form brought to perfection by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe—strong narratives with dialogue scenes interrupted by explosions of emotion expressed in song.
Gypsy was given an instantly iconic face by Ethel Merman who played Rose, Gypsy’s indomitable, ball-breaking mother. Here the plain-spoken Rose sets out her personal agenda: She’ll make her children into stars because mediocrity is not an option:
Some people sit on their butts,
Got the dream—yeah, but not the guts!
That’s living for some people,
People, I suppose.
Well, they can stay and rot—
Not a word out of place, not an uncharacteristic syllable for this gutsy broad, yet the some/humdrum triple rhyme and the emphatic addition of “yeah”—spring rhythm!—lifts it into folk poetry.
The triumph of Gypsy notwithstanding, Sondheim was educated as a composer and longed to write both words and music again. That opportunity came in 1961 with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a low-comedy farce that married the plays of Plautus to 20th century burlesque hijinks. Sondheim’s songs, as he describes them, offered respite from the relentlessness of the onstage frenzy. Sondheim remains dissatisfied with the score: “I made the subtle, though thankfully not fatal, error of being witty rather than comic.”
It’s unlikely that most audiences noted the distinction. In the hands of a host of old vaudeville pros, the show is a pure romp, aided immeasurably by cheery tunes and carefree but impeccable words. Here, four horny jesters leer their way through the pleasures of owning a nubile slave to keep house:
Everybody ought to have a maid!
Someone who you hire when you’re short of help
To offer you the sort of help
You’ll never get from a spouse.
Fluttering up the stairway
Shuttering up the windows,
Cluttering up the bedroom,
Buttering up the master,
Puttering all around the house!
Wouldn’t she be delicious!
Tidying up the dishes,
Neat as a pin?
Sweeping out, sleeping in.
In the book, Sondheim warns of excessive rhyming because it may shift attention from character to writer, but when the characters are cartoons, who cares? The joy here is in their very profusion—the word “fluttering” and its four succeeding rhymes at the beginning of each phrase cascade along with its bubbly music to suggest the giddy imaginings of its characters in lust. With the final line comes an elegant punch that has an implicit leer worthy of Groucho.
The rest of the Sixties were not kind to Sondheim; indeed, they weren’t particularly kind to any musical theater graybeards. Despite a handful of notable successes—Hello, Dolly! Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret—the decade saw musical tastes changing (thanks, Beatles and Stones) and romantic optimism beginning to sour (thanks, Lee Harvey Oswald). The opening of Hair in 1969 sounded a raucous death knell to any musical that didn’t use a rock idiom to tell its story. That rock never did take Broadway by storm couldn’t have been foretold by those traditional composers and lyricists in the midst of what must have seemed a very bleak period.
Unsurprisingly, then, the decade brought Sondheim his first commercial flop. Teaming again in ’64 with Arthur Laurents, they created Anyone Can Whistle, an experimental dip into absurdist theater and modish psychoanalysis that lasted a mere nine performances. Once again, Sondheim’s score was dismissed by all but the most prescient critics, but thanks to a thrilling original cast album, his work only added to his growing cult; and while subsequent productions of the musical demonstrate its serious flaws, Sondheim’s contributions were not among them. One of the score’s more enduring songs is the plaintive and artfully simple title song, sung by a woman skilful in every way but emotional connection .
In one of Sondheim’s more fascinating asides, he writes that this song has long been cited as autobiographical:
To believe that [it] is my credo is to believe that I’m the prototypical Repressed Intellectual and that explains everything about me. Perhaps being tagged with a cliché shouldn’t bother me, but it does….
His recent admission that he did not fall in love until he was in his early 60s could certainly lead an observer to feel that he had a personal stake in the song, a surmise given additional weight by his plaintive live performance in a 1970s benefit concert. So perhaps he doth protest too much. Either way, he clearly knows when to follow one of his core principles, “less is more”:
Anyone can whistle
That’s what they say.
Anyone can whistle
Any old day.
I can dance a tango
I can read Greek.
I can slay a dragon
Any old week.
What’s hard is simple
What’s natural comes hard.
Maybe if you show me,
How to let go
Lower my guard,
Learn to be free.
Maybe if you whistle
Whistle for me.
His only other Broadway production that decade was Do I Hear a Waltz?, a return to the lyric-only mode he had hoped he had abandoned. But the opportunity to work with Richard Rodgers seemed to him a fitting tribute to Hammerstein, his now-deceased mentor; unfortunately, the Rodgers-Sondheim team was a mismatch. The younger man found the elder crabby and imperious, and for all of its virtues, this Waltz proved largely charmless, and ran a disappointing six months.
After the discordant Whistle and the clumsy Waltz, Sondheim found it difficult to align himself with a project that clicked. It took an old pal and former collaborator to lead him out of this creative Slough of Despond, and the result was a collaboration that proved as fecund as any in the modern theater.
Harold Prince had worked with Sondheim as co-producer on West Side Story and Forum, and in the intervening years had become a successful director, with Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and She Loves Me to his credit. When playwright George Furth asked for Sondheim’s suggestions on where to place a series of short interrelated plays he had written, Sondheim passed them along to Prince, who suggested that they be musicalized.
And that was that. By 1970, the plays had become the musical Company, and the theater welcomed the first of a series of Sondheim-Prince landmarks. The team, collaborating with their librettists, cast aside the old-fashioned scene-song-scene-song storytelling, often replacing it with the exploration of a single topic: Company cast a gimlet eye on marriage and urban anguish from several points of view; Follies took on the corrosive affects of time and memory wrapped in the metaphor of aging musical comedy performers panicked by the loss of their youth and the realization of wasted lives; Pacific Overtures portrayed 19th-century Japanese-American relations, no less, as performed by artists of Kabuki and Noh theater who, according to Sondheim, “had seen a lot of American musicals.” With Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (for my money, their finest hour), they took a hoary British melodrama and transformed it into a thrilling operatic mystery overlaid by a searing indictment of Victorian venality. And with Merrily We Roll Along, they adapted a Kaufman and Hart play performed backwards in time: we first meet the protagonist at the height of his fame and moral decay, and last see him and his friends as idealistic, sunny-faced youths.
Critics dubbed these productions “concept musicals,” a term Sondheim rejects, maintaining that many previous shows had concepts; he and Prince and their collaborators, he writes, were merely finding different, original ways of telling stories. And as Finishing the Hat reveals, it is the way Sondheim “tells the story” in rich characterization, verbal acuity, and original dramatic situations that places him at the pinnacle of theater artists.
Every Steve-adore has his or her favorites, so beware being cornered by one and exhorted to listen to a seemingly endless list. In addition to those quoted above, here are a few of mine:
From Company, “Sorry-Grateful” is a highly original take on the ambivalence of a partner in a long-term relationship. Indeed, Company is all about ambivalence. Young bachelor Bobby, the main character, has sexual partners aplenty, but finds long-term emotional commitment impossible (cf. “Anyone Can Whistle” and a singular song from Follies: “I’ve Got Those ‘God-why-don’t-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I’ll-see-you-later’ Blues.”). Floating in his social sphere are married couples, friends who throughout the musical demonstrate the varied trials and tribulations of life (mostly the latter) of marital unions.
Seeking answers, he turns to his male friends with the query, “Are you ever sorry you got married”? The response:
You’re always sorry,
You’re always grateful.
You’re always wondering what might have been
Then she walks in.
And still you’re sorry,
And still you’re grateful,
And still you wonder and still you doubt,
Then she goes out.
Only maybe slightly
Why look for answers
Where none occur?
You always are what you always were,
Which has nothing to do with,
All to do with her.
The root of Sondheim’s mastery is not always merely verbal; it often comes from the exploration of ambiguity. Classic musical theater almost always presents characters in love or wanting love or mourning the loss of love. “Sorry-Grateful” is seeped in contradictions rare for the form, but true to the 1970 zeitgeist, when the Vietnam War and other social ills put everyone in a bad mood. Company in its day was subversive for questioning notions of romantic love, and traditionalists like critic Walter Kerr took its authors to task: “[The characters are] not a bunch you’d care to save, or even spend a weekend with.”
In Follies, the characters gather for a reunion of singers and dancers who performed in the eponymous show years before. In one hallucinatory scene, they become fantasy versions of themselves, and reveal inner truths through pastiche songs recalling their heyday. Here in a Cole Porter homage (written for the London production), Sondheim is at his most show-offy and dazzling, as he describes a woman whose high society present clashes with her bohemian roots:
Uptown, she’s got the Vanderbilt clans.
Downtown, she’s with the sidewalks Cezannes.
From New Rochelle.
At the Ritz
With her splits of Mumm’s
And starts to pine
For a stein
With her village chums.
But with a Schlitz
In her mitts
Down in Fitz-
Of the Ritz—oh,
Again, ambivalence, but here couched in the language of musical comedy. (“Nouveau from New Rochelle” could easily have been the title of a 20’s musical.) He piles on the rhymes as the song moves to its climax—sits, Ritz, splits, Schlitz, mitts, Fitz, it’s so/schizo—and his glee becomes the audience’s. Always good for a lyric kicker, he adds this poison-pill postscript: “She’s two of the most miserable gals in town.” Funny … and finally sad.
A Little Night Music is adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, set in turn-of-the-century Sweden. “The Miller’s Son” is the confession of the lusty maid Petra, fantasizing on her choice of future husbands in what for me is perhaps the greatest carpe diem popular song ever written. Petra is a relatively minor character, but she has spent the evening watching her foolish “betters” do absurd dances of seduction and mismatched liaisons. Petra will have no such silliness in her life. She’ll settle down with the miller’s son, the businessman, perhaps even the Prince of Wales. But no matter her fate, “a girl has to celebrate what passes by”:
Or I shall marry the businessman:
Five fat babies and lots of security.
Friday nights, if we think we can,
We’ll go dancing.
It’s a push and a fumble
And a tumble in the sheets,
And I’ll foot the Highland Fancy,
A dip in the butter
And a flutter with what meets
It’s a very short fetch
From the push and the whoop
To the squint and the stoop and the mumble.
It’s not much of a stretch
To the cribs and the croup
And the bosoms that droop
And go dry.
In the meanwhile,
There are mouths to be kissed
Before mouths to fed,
And there’s many a tryst
And there’s many a bed
To be sampled and seen
In the meanwhile.
And a girl has to celebrate
What passes by.
Sondheim chooses off-center and era-appropriate words here: “push and a fumble,” “short fetch,” “foot the Highland fancy,” and “dip in the butter” are redolent of Petra’s world. Old age is rendered obliquely: “the squint and the stoop and the mumble”; “the bosoms that droop/And go dry.” And the lyric is rich in alliteration (“squint, stoop, stretch,” “five, fat, Friday, Foot, Fancy, flutter”) parallelism (“mouths to be kissed/ Before mouths to be fed”) and internal rhyme (“fumble/ tumble,” “butter/flutter”). It’s a densely packed lyric that tells us exactly who Petra is and how she fits into the scheme of the show.
It is not merely Sondheim’s meticulous sense of diction, rhyme, alliteration, and psychological insight that has kept him a Colossus. He is also a superb dramatist, creating entire musical scenes that advance plot and deepen character. And while he is exceedingly generous to his collaborators, maintaining that they provide him with the foundation that supports his careful constructs, it is his details that supply the sizzle.
In the Night Music first-act finale (no one writes better act closers than he does), he sends eight principal characters to a “Weekend in the Country,” encapsulating each of their separate agendas, hopes, fears, and strategies as they prepare for the trip. In Pacific Overtures, a 19th-century treaty between the United States and Japan is described not by its principal players, but by bystanders: a narrator; a little boy hiding in a nearby tree; the boy grown old and now in his dotage, looking back to remember; a guard hiding under the floorboards. The song is “Someone in a Tree,” one of his greatest, as he posits that history’s weight is not the event itself but the witnessed details that matter:
It’s the fragment, not the day.
It’s the pebble, not the stream.
It’s the ripple not the sea
That is happening.
Not the building but the beam.
Not the garden but the stone.
Only cups of tea,
And someone in a tree!
The Sondheim-Prince collaboration ended for all practical purposes after the quick Broadway demise of Merrily, although that show too continues to be revived and revered. The last line of Finishing the Hat—“And then I met [playwright] James Lapine”—foreshadows a new creative partner and the start of an era that brought forth some of his greatest work, as well as a Pulitzer Prize.
Finishing the Hat collects in chronological order all of the lyrics of the shows through Merrily, as well as alternate lyrics, unused songs, and occasional variants—a grand feast for Steve-adores, but not the main course. In the essays and commentary he becomes critic, teacher, raconteur, and memoirist. This is as close as we’re likely to come to a Sondheim autobiography, alas, but it provides some sweet snapshots of the private Sondheim, including an account of his unabashed pride when an ailing Cole Porter gets a private concert of Gypsy-in-progress and beams at a tricky quadruple rhyme (“he goes/she goes/egos/amigos”).
The book’s lengthy introduction is a master-class in the writing of musical theater lyrics. Sondheim distills his philosophy in three tried-but-true principles: Content Dictates Form, Less Is More, and God is in the Details—all in the service of clarity. He proceeds throughout the book to demonstrate how certain lyrics (his own and those of others) adhere to these tenets—or, god forbid, don’t.
He’s a great proponent of the true rhyme and has little patience for the half-rhyme and the identity rhyme, reasons, he says, for deploring the work of many pop songwriters. He makes careful distinction between lyrics and poetry (poetry can be read at the reader’s own speed; lyrics have to land on the ear immediately), and suggests that true poets who make forays into lyric-writing do so with rare success.
In a series of lengthy sidebars, he takes on some of the sacred lyric-writing cows of the American theater—some to praise, some to sear. He lauds Irving Berlin, Dorothy Fields, Frank Loesser, E.Y. Harburg, and throws brickbats at Larry Hart, Noel Coward, Alan Jay Lerner and W.S. Gilbert (taking on Coward and Gilbert, he said at a recent public appearance, earned him hissing from a London audience). And if you’re curious as to his favorite set of theater lyrics, it’s those created by DuBose Hayward for Porgy and Bess; he pointedly excludes the contributions of Ira Gershwin.
Perhaps most heretical of all, he finds much to criticize in Hammerstein (“Despite his influence on my life, he is not my idol.”), especially in the “overripe” bathos Hammerstein brought to certain songs. Yet while he takes great exception to this lyric: “You are the promised kiss of springtime / That makes the lonely winter seem long,” I find it touching and lovely. And I object to the rather school-marm attitude he takes toward this Larry Hart lyric from “My Funny Valentine”:
Your looks are laughable,
Yet you’re my favorite work of art.
Sondheim contends that nothing is “unphotographable,” and that Hart really meant “unphotogenic” but couldn’t find a rhyme for the correct word. Well, really. I think Hart’s choice is perfectly fine as a colloquial expression, and I fear that Sondheim’s take vacuums the joy out of one of the most tender love songs ever written. To be fair, he is as tough on himself as he is on anyone else.
But such commentary makes Finishing the Hat a joy to read and debate, and provides a rare glimpse into the artistic soul of a man not given to overt public emotion or confessionals. His estimable work spans six decades. While he has never had a popular success akin to a Fiddler or a Phantom, and only one of his songs, “Send in the Clowns,” has achieved mega-success, he has seen his works revived time and again, all over the world some in major opera houses. He has been accorded every conceivable theatrical award, including eight Tonys, election to the National Academy of Arts and Letters and a festschrift by the Poetry Society of America, with encomiums by Robert Creeley, Richard Wilbur, J.D. McClatchy, and others. Rare honors for a mere writer of songs.
And he’s the last of a diminished breed. His contemporaries are dead or produce sparingly, if at all. As for the younger generations, many try, but none have succeeded. Those who attempt a slavish imitation of his style do so at their own peril. Closest to being fitted for the mantle is, interestingly enough, Adam Guettel, Richard Rodgers’ grandson. (It’s worth noting that Sondheim refuses to assess the work of any living artist, so we’re left to speculate on his opinions of Wicked, Spring Awakening, or the oeuvre of Andrew Lloyd Weber. I’m guessing it wouldn’t be pretty.)
“Finishing the Hat” comes from Sunday in the Park With George, a musical that will open the next volume of Sondheim’s collected lyrics. In the song, one of his masterpieces, the artist Georges Seurat laments the difficulty of balancing obsession with his art with the ardent demands of a lover:
But the woman who won’t wait for you knows
That, however you live,
There’s a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing a hat . . .
Starting on a hat . . .
Finishing a hat . . .
Look, I made a hat . . .
Where there never was a hat . . .
Like the song, Sondheim’s book is about obsession and joy. His striving for perfection, his search for the mot juste, his impatience with his imperfections and those of others, mark every page. But so does the almost child-like glee (“Look, I made a hat!”) he takes in his appreciation of great work and his love of musical theater. It is an opinionated and instructive volume that also happens to be funny and smart, much like the man himself.
He knows how to make a hat, Steve does. And Steve-adores everywhere tip our hats to his.
Michael Adams is a writer and editor living in New York City. He holds a PhD from Northwestern University in Performance Studies. His doctoral dissertation examined the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.