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There’s a number in Merrily We Roll Along called ‘Opening Doors’, in which two young songwriters audition for a producer who interrupts: ‘That’s great! That’s swell!/ The other stuff as well!/ It isn’t every day I hear a score this strong,/ But fellas, if I may,/ There’s only one thing wrong:/ There’s not a tune you can hum.’ Urging them to be ‘less avant-garde’, he exits, asking for a ‘plain old melodee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee’ — sung (inaccurately) to the tune of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’.

16 October 2010

12:00 AM

16 October 2010

12:00 AM

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics, 1954-1981 Stephen Sondheim

Virgin Books, pp.444, 30

There’s a number in Merrily We Roll Along called ‘Opening Doors’, in which two young songwriters audition for a producer who interrupts: ‘That’s great! That’s swell!/ The other stuff as well!/ It isn’t every day I hear a score this strong,/ But fellas, if I may,/ There’s only one thing wrong:/ There’s not a tune you can hum.’ Urging them to be ‘less avant-garde’, he exits, asking for a ‘plain old melodee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee’ — sung (inaccurately) to the tune of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’.

There’s a number in Merrily We Roll Along called ‘Opening Doors’, in which two young songwriters audition for a producer who interrupts: ‘That’s great! That’s swell!/ The other stuff as well!/ It isn’t every day I hear a score this strong,/ But fellas, if I may,/ There’s only one thing wrong:/ There’s not a tune you can hum.’ Urging them to be ‘less avant-garde’, he exits, asking for a ‘plain old melodee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee’ — sung (inaccurately) to the tune of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’.

Sondheim’s ‘Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes’ (the book’s subtitle) claim that he has only written one song based on ‘personal internal experience’. But he concedes that this one is at least ‘drawn directly from external life experiences’.

It addresses what his detractors most often accuse him of: excessive cleverness, cynicism, and deliberately avoiding obvious, popular appeal in both his music and lyrics. But as Mark Steyn pointed out in his survey of musical theatre, Broadway Babies Say Goodnight, his supporters say much the same. For this audience — which we may imagine as archetypal New Yorker readers everywhere — Sondheim

was a nobody until Anyone Can Whistle. All he’d done previously was write three solid hits, one after another … his first cult flop made him a genius too special for the expense-account set, the bridge-&-tunnellers and all the other schmucks who’d prefer to be vegged out at Hello, Dolly!

Merrily We Roll Along (1981), the last of the shows examined here, is relatively straightforward by Sondheim’s lights. True, it runs backwards chronologically, but that’s mild fare for a man whose shows include an adaptation of Plautus, a kabuki reinterpretation of the history of Western imperialism in Japan, a version of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer’s Night entirely in waltz time, an analysis of a fear of commitment set in a single instant at a birthday party, a version of The Frogs set in a swimming pool, a history of musical theatre at a reunion of clapped-out chorus girls, a reconstruction of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, black comedies about a homicidal barber and everyone who has tried to assassinate an American president, and a dramatisation of Georges Seurat’s pointilliste painting ‘L’ile de la Grande Jatte’.

No surprise, then, that the audition scene providing a riposte to Sondheim’s detractors operates on several levels. Though ‘Who Wants to Live in New York?’, the song the writers are performing, has a highly syncopated accompaniment filled with dissonant chords, it has already made an appearance as one of the big romantic numbers, ‘Good Thing Going’.


That was melodic enough for Frank Sinatra to have recorded it before the show had even opened and, like a surprising number of songs from the shows which fared badly on their first outing (‘Merrily’ managed 16 performances), to have found a secure place in the Great American Songbook. The audience is familiar enough with the melody to be humming along by the time the producer comments, ‘What’s wrong with letting them tap their toes a bit?/I’ll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit.’

Sondheim has previously said that if an audience can hum a song at once, it’s probably because they’ve heard it before; the choice to segue into ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ is, as his aficionados know, a nod not only to that kind of song, but to its authors.

Oscar Hammerstein was a surrogate father to the young Sondheim and taught him many of the ground rules of song- writing. But despite his influence, Sond- heim writes that he ‘is not my idol’ and that his characters fail to become ‘more than collections of characteristics’. After Hammerstein’s death, Sondheim collaborated with Richard Rodgers, writing the lyrics for Do I Hear a Waltz?, a show which was ‘well written, adequately performed and a failure in every respect’.

This he puts down to the fact that there was no reason for writing the show in the first place. Handy though it is to have the lyrics from the first part of Sondheim’s career gathered together, the real value of this book is in his dissection of their failures. He is fascinating too on the work of other lyricists (though he confines himself to those who are dead), praising Dorothy Fields and damning Coward and Gilbert. He provides accounts of the role of rhyme, the difference between lyrics and poetry, the frequent necessity to rewrite days before a show’s opening, and how he himself writes (lying on a couch, with Faber Blackwing pencils on a legal pad). Sondheim justifies these excursions thus:

Reading about how someone else practises a craft, no matter how individual or arcane — designing roller coasters, managing hedge funds, harvesting salt — if it’s detailed, clear and the writer is passionate about his pursuit, can be not just mesmerising but enlightening.

In the preface Sondheim writes that three points he has learned from Hammerstein’s tutoring and 60 years of songwriting should be written in stone: ‘Content Dictates Form’; ‘Less is More’ and ‘God is in the Details’ — all in the service of clarity.

Unsurprisingly, his earliest songs attract his sharpest criticism: sections of West Side Story and Gypsy are torn to bits. In one song alone, ‘Class’, from his first show, Saturday Night, he identifies seven sins: verbosity; substituting rhyme for character; sonic ambiguity; redundant adjectival padding; architectural laziness; inconsistency; and strained jokes.

Still, for those of us who share Tom Lehrer’s view that Stephen Sondheim is, by a country mile, the greatest lyricist who ever lived, this is an essential book, purely as a reference work.

Lehrer’s assessment is certainly justified dozens of times over by the best-known songs, such as ‘Getting Married Today’ from Company or Mrs Lovett’s patter number ‘A Little Priest’, from Sweeney Todd. They, like ‘I’m Still Here’, sung by the ageing showgirl Carlotta in Follies, are technically brilliant showstoppers.

‘First you’re another/ Sloe-eyed vamp,/ Then someone’s mother,/ Then you’re camp./ Then you career/ From career to career./ I’m almost through my memoirs,/ And I’m here.’ Addicts will be pleased to see that Sondheim has appended the variant lyrics written for Barbra Streisand’s militant feminist version, and Shirley MacLaine’s rendition in the film Postcards from the Edge.

Though this is a diligent Collected Lyrics, some Sondheim maniacs may share my disappointment that it is not an entirely complete collection. Buried away on page 323 there is a promise that the songs from the television production Evening Primrose (1966) will appear in volume two. I hope that we will also get the cabaret numbers, such as the pastiche of ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, written with Rodgers’s daughter Mary and entitled ‘The Boy From (Tacarembo La Tumbe Del Fuego Santa Malipas Zatatecas La Junta Del Sol Y
Cruz)’.

Sondheim obscurantists will love this book, but it will not be enough for them. One of the most popular songs at concerts devoted to the master’s work is ‘There Won’t Be Trumpets’, a song actually cut before the opening of Anyone Can Whistle, which, with nine performances, was one of the biggest flops in musical theatre history. As the brief snippet of the cabaret song he wrote for Madonna in the film Dick Tracy put it: ‘Nothing’s better than more!’


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