With a vast and eclectic résumé that spans six decades and has produced such Broadway anthems as “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “I’m Still Here,” and “Send in the Clowns,” Stephen Sondheim is revered by even the casual theaterphile as a master of the modern stage musical. The Grammy-, Oscar-, Pulitzer-, and eight-time Tony-winning composer-lyricist was famously mentored as a young man by Oscar Hammerstein II. He ushered in an era of intense musical sophistication and experimentation in chords, keys, melodies, ingenious wordplay, and breathtaking (often literally, in difficult patter songs like Company’s “Getting Married Today”) structure—not to mention hitherto untapped subject matter (such as cannibalism, in Sweeney Todd). As complex as his best work is, the innovative composer says he always sought clarity, adhering to three simple rules: Content dictates form, less is more, and God is in the details.
With the publication of Finishing the Hat (Knopf, $39.95), fans will likely find their own enlightenment in the details as Sondheim, 80, guides readers through the golden age of his fabled career. Subtitled Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes, Hat offers a trove for aficionados. Here are Sondheim’s handwritten sheet music, illustrations from his personal photo collection, and firsthand accounts of the genesis of his hits (West Side Story, A Little Night Music) and his polarizing misses (Anyone Can Whistle, Pacific Overtures). Interspersed throughout are Sondheim’s priceless meditations-cum-profiles on other musical theater figures, including Noël Coward and Cole Porter.
Sondheim writes that he came of age—lyrically speaking—writing 1959’s Gypsy, the musical epic of the ultimate stage mother. He also recalls playing the unfinished score for the legendary Porter, then a depressed, disabled invalid. The image of Porter’s gasp of delight at Sondheim’s unexpected quadruple rhyme in “Together, Wherever We Go” is one he says he conjures up whenever he needs an ego boost. But Hat isn’t all rose-colored reflection. Sondheim is brutally honest, describing Coward as “a writer whose lyrics I cordially but intensely dislike.”
The composer completes this volume with 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along (which marked his final collaboration with frequent director and producer Hal Prince for two decades), ending on as simple a note as he ever composed. As Sondheim puts it, “And then I met James Lapine.” The fruitful collaboration between those two would bring one of his crowning achievements, 1984’s Sunday in the Park With George. (A song in that show about the creation of art provides this book’s title.) A sequel, Look, I Made a Hat, is in the works, but until then—as Elaine Stritch urged in “The Ladies Who Lunch,” her showstopper from Sondheim’s 1970 classic Company—everybody rise!