Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sondheim's Book, Finishing the Hat: First Reading

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Having sung Stephen Sondheim's songs at the top of my lungs in theatres, showers, kitchens, cars, and parlors for forty years now, I could pass over the meat of this book, his collected lyrics: I've memorized nearly every syllable.  Instead, I devoured the side dishes sweet and biting:  comments about lyrics, his craft, and what he learned from other practitioners.  

My first impression is that Sondheim's heart is in this book, expressed precisely (as usual) by a mind that simply cannot abide dishonesty or inaccuracy.  Years ago, when Meryl Secrest published her biography of him, he commented that, of course, he gave her full access to everything about him, and he held nothing back.  He wondered, what would be the point of a biography otherwise?

Well, he could try to ensure a flattering story.  But not Sondheim.  He wants to take precisely the credit he feels he deserves. 

His honesty and accuracy show in a remarkable passage cited by reviewer Jeremy Gerard on line.  It's about the way commentators have portrayed him as "Repressed Intellectual" since he once sang his song "Anyone Can Whistle" (written for a character who was a repressed intellectual) at a tribute in 1973.  Of this, he writes:
Perhaps being tagged with a cliché shouldn’t bother me, but it does, and to my chagrin I realize 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, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it has.
I'm sure I'll write  more, later.  But here are links to two of the four reviews I've seen:

The second, by Simon Callow, comes closest to saying what I think.  Another in the NY Times, by songwriter Paul Simon, shows a great appreciation of Sondheim dating back to Paul Simon's teenage years.

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