If I could choose to be any Broadway composer of the 20th century, my choice would be Stephen Sondheim. While I love the music of Richard Rodgers, Fritz Loewe and any theater work Leonard Bernstein created for the stage, I’ve always felt that Sondheim’s art stands in a class by itself.
I recently reacquainted myself with his work by way of two recent books, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made A Hat. I think these are the closest we’ll get to an autobiography or memoir from the man himself. In these books, he shares the wealth of knowledge gained in more than fifty years of writing for the stage.
Finishing the Hat takes you from the early show Saturday Night through 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on West Side Story, which gives you the real dirt on who wrote what in the collaboration with Leonard Bernstein. I’m a big fan of Sweeney Todd, and I learned lots of new trivia from this chapter. I was surprised to find that Sondheim was always displeased by the last few lines of the Act 1 closing number, A Little Priest. He says he got it right, belatedly, for the movie version starring Johnny Depp. (By the way, if you only know that version, you really should see the television adaptation of the stage musical starring George Hearn and the marvelous, original Mrs. Lovett, Angela Landsbury.)
Look, I Made A Hat contains some of the shows I got to know first, including the Pulitzer Prize winning Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods. I’ve played for high school productions of the latter twice, so I was fascinated to learn that cast input solved a particular problem for Lapine and Sondheim. I won’t tell you what that was – you should read this to find out. You also get the full explanation of the creation of his most recent work, last named Road Show. This one had a particularly difficult evolution, and he effectively guides you through the complicated maze of what stayed, what went, and what was completely rewritten. In fact, both books contain lots of cut lyrics, observations and musings, as well as reproductions of neat documents like handwritten drafts with lots of discarded ideas. You’ll also learn why rhyme and precision are so important to him.
While the words are wonderful, his music is equally exquisite. Hearing makes the reading even more fun, and you can enjoy cast and tribute albums from the DCPL collection to enhance your reading. I do hope you spend a little time with Sondheim this summer, and I really must go now. I have a meat pie in the oven…