Look, He Made A Hat: Sondheim Talks Sondheim The musical-theater titan tells the stories behind some of his most famous work, from West Side Story to Gypsy. And he offers some surprising criticisms of other theater greats, including his mentor Oscar Hammerstein.

Look, He Made A Hat: Sondheim Talks Sondheim

Look, He Made A Hat: Sondheim Talks Sondheim

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Happiness is a good rhyme: Stephen Sondheim's new memoir takes its title from a lyric that captures what songwriter Paul Simon -- in a New York Times review of the book -- describes as "that feeling of joy, the little squirt of dopamine hitting the brain" when an artist is at work. Courtesy of the author hide caption

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Courtesy of the author

Happiness is a good rhyme: Stephen Sondheim's new memoir takes its title from a lyric that captures what songwriter Paul Simon -- in a New York Times review of the book -- describes as "that feeling of joy, the little squirt of dopamine hitting the brain" when an artist is at work.

Courtesy of the author

In Finishing the Hat, a compendium of Stephen Sondheim lyrics written between 1954 and 1981, the titan of the American musical theater reveals the stories behind some of his most famous numbers -- including songs from Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Gypsy, West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

In addition to examining his own lyrics, Sondheim discusses his collaborations with Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury, as well as his relationship with his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II.

Sondheim tells Terry Gross that he wanted to examine the works of other musical-theater writers in order to put his own lyrics in context.

"I thought, 'I can't just criticize myself,'" he explains. "So I looked very carefully at the dozen best musical writers in the American musical theater who preceded me, and looked at their work and talked about it a little bit. ... I go into a little detail on what I think are the flaws or weaknesses or lazinesses of some of those people, and then [I talk about] the people, the bulk of whose work is solid and skillful and pointed."

Finishing The Hat

Among the lyrical heresies that bother Sondheim, he explains, are mis-stressed syllables, misplaced regional accents, purple prose, lyrics that are "too full of themselves" and words that mean absolutely nothing.

He points to a verse from Hammerstein's "All the Things You Are," written for the musical Very Warm for May, as an example of a "lyrical cardinal sin:"

You are the promised kiss of springtime
That makes the lonely winter seem long
You are the breathless hush of evening
That trembles on the brink of a lovely song.

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes
By Stephen Sondheim
Hardcover, 480 pages
List price: $39.95

Read An Excerpt

"Those are all very pretty words, but what do they mean?" Sondheim asks. "Take a look at those images. I don't know what they mean. I also don't know how they apply personally to anybody. I just think they are poesy" -- in the sense of forced, sentimentalized poetic writing -- "and not poetry. Oscar did a lot of poetic writing, which I would call poesy, using images that are not germane to what's going on. I think that's just a writer trying to be poetic."

But Hammerstein, says Sondheim, could also be genuinely poetic. Take, for example, the opening lines to Oklahoma's "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'":

Oh, what a beautiful mornin',
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I got a beautiful feelin'
Ev'rythin's goin' my way!

Sondheim says that though that lyrics don't sound exciting on paper, they soar when set to Richard Rodgers' score.

"This is a lyric that doesn't look interesting, but it's thrilling," he says. "It's made for music."

Sondheim won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Sunday in the Park With George. He has also received seven Tonys, seven Grammys, an Oscar and a Kennedy Center Honor.

Interview Highlights

On collaborative moments

"If you're talking about Aha! moments, that comes with any collaboration. You sit in a room and you're talking to someone and your collaborator says 'X, Y, Z' and you say 'Wait a minute, that's a great idea for this song.' I had that with Jerry Robbins. He happened to use the phrase 'Let me entertain you' as a sort of dummy phrase for what we thought the song should be about, and I said 'That's perfect, that's exactly the right phrase.' Because it can be 'Let me entertain you' [sung] by kids, and then, when Gypsy becomes a stripper, it can have the sexy, sultry undertone or overtone to it, because 'entertain' can be seen and heard as a double entendre."

Among the songwriting "sins" Sondheim identifies as traps: substituting rhyme for character, strained jokes, redundant adjective padding and inconsistency. AP hide caption

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Among the songwriting "sins" Sondheim identifies as traps: substituting rhyme for character, strained jokes, redundant adjective padding and inconsistency.


On using slang in the Jets' song from West Side Story

"I was just imitating Arthur Laurents' style. He wrote the book, and he made up a style, a kind of street talk that never existed, because he knew that if he used actual street argot, it would date so quickly that by the time the show got on [stage] a year or two later, it would be old-fashioned. One of the very few pieces of actual street argot we used was the word 'cool,' which still meant the same thing back in 1957 that it had meant to jazz musicians earlier. And that's a word that has stayed, pretty much in the language meaning approximately the same thing, although it changes a little bit. Now of course it just means OK, but 'cool' meant 'better than OK' before, so we kept that."

On using profanity in West Side Story

The song "Gee, Officer Krupke" ends with the cast singing "Gee, Officer Krupke, What are we to do? / Gee, Officer Krupke -- Krup You!"

"I wanted this to be the first musical to use f--k. In fact, I first used it in 'Krupke.' I wanted the last line in 'Krupke' to be 'Gee Officer Krupke, f--k you.' And we played the song for a record company, Columbia Records, who was going to do the album and also for a lady who was raising money for the producer at the time, and she blanched visibly and clearly was upset by it. She didn't complain. She was just sort of shocked and unhappy. But then Goddard [Lieberson, the president of Columbia Records] told us that if we used that word, we couldn't ship the show across state lines because it would be in violation of the obscenity laws. So we changed it to 'Krup you.'"

On writing for Ethel Merman in Gypsy

"We assumed that she couldn't act because she had played all of her life just low comedy and brassy songs, and [Gypsy] would require her to act, particularly at the end of the first act, where she discovers that her daughter has left her and she's going to make the other daughter fill the younger daughter's shoes and make her into a star. And so I thought, 'If she can't act at that moment -- because it's a huge moment -- the way to do it is to give Ethel a kind of song that she's sung all her life: a big, brassy number like "Blow, Gabriel Blow." And then let ... her lover and Louise, her daughter who she's focusing on, react as if they were in front of a cobra -- just completely terrified and motionless and cowering, and then the effect would be made. Ethel wouldn't have to act, but you'd get the idea of, 'This express-train woman is now going to run over her other daughter.' And to our surprise and delight, Ethel could act. But the song we wrote, "Everything's Coming Up Roses," is an imitation of "Blow, Gabriel Blow" that Cole Porter or Irving Berlin or any of those brassy [things] that they wrote for Ethel to sing."

On experimentation with musical form

"I never take an overview of myself or what I've done. I do know that if you look at an overview of the stuff that was written before my generation, what you get is [Oscar] Hammerstein as an experimental playwright and his big experiment, which would have broken things open had it been a success, was the third show he wrote with Rodgers, called Allegro, which was an attempt to really try something new with the form. But because it was a failure, nobody picked up on it. Then it was up to my generation to start experimenting [with] the form."

Excerpt: 'Finishing The Hat'

Finishing The Hat
Finishing The Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines And Anecdotes
By Stephen Sondheim
Hardcover, 480 pages
Knopf Doubleday
List price: $39.95

So once again, why collect these lyrics and make this book? Because a publisher asked me to; because it offered me the opportunity to append these comments on a craft I know a great deal about; because most of the lyrics are conversational and therefore stand the chance of being an entertaining read; but mostly because I think the explication of any craft, when articulated by an experienced practitioner, can be not only intriguing but also valuable, no matter what particularity the reader may be attracted to. For example, I don't cook, nor do I want to, but I read cooking columns with intense and explicit interest. The technical details echo those which challenge a songwriter: timing, balance, form, surface versus substance, and all the rest of it. They resonate for me even though I have no desire to braise, parboil or sauté. Similarly, I hope, the specific techniques of lyric-writing will enlighten the cook who reads these pages. Choices, decisions and mistakes in every attempt to make something that wasn't there before are essentially the same, and exploring one set of them, I like to believe, may cast light on another.

Since most of the lyrics which follow belong in the mouths of particular characters in particular situations, characters who are only partly knowable without the context of the dialogue and actions in their stories, I've included synopses to introduce each show and each song. These are shadows, however, not substance. With few exceptions, every lyric in this collection is prompted by the beginning, middle or end of a culmination of incidents before it, incidents of which the reader is likely to be unaware. For example, "In Buddy's Eyes" (from Follies) loses much of its tone and all of its subtext when disconnected from the placid surface of its music and the scenes and dialogue which have preceded it. How can we know what Sally means or what she's trying not to say, without knowing Sally? It's as if we were asked to know Hamlet from his soliloquies alone, for what are solo songs but musicalized soliloquies, encapsulated moments even when addressed to other characters? Lyrics without the scenes from which they sprout, at least the ones in this book, are just as incomplete as lyrics without music.

Some songs, of course, are small scenes in themselves. I've been asked many times why I don't write the books for my own musicals, since I treat lyrics as short plays whenever I can. The key word in that sentence is "short." I'm by nature a playwright, but without the necessary basic skill: the ability to tell a story that holds an audience's attention for more than a few minutes. Writing plays is, in my view, the most difficult of the literary arts. A play has to be as packed and formally controlled as a sonnet, but roomy enough to let the actors and the stagecraft in. Packed but loose, like a good lyric. Poets rarely have to deal with plot; novelists never have to deal with actors. A playwright has to deal with both and still make the result immediate enough to grip an audience for, on the average, two and a half hours. (That usually includes an intermission, where he loses them for fifteen minutes and has to woo them back.) I like to think I can hold their interest with short forms: playlets which are called songs. The longest I've written is the opening number of Into the Woods, a mere twelve-minute sequence, and that includes a good deal of dialogue. I'm in awe of good playwrights, even when I don't like the plays, and ever since the day I started working with my first professional collaborator and learned what went into the craft of playwriting, I have never tried to do it alone.

Actually, I've wanted to set these observations in print for years. I like to pontificate as much as anyone who thinks he knows what he's talking about, but I've done it only when being interviewed or when arguing with other songwriters. My reluctance to write them down, apart from the universal writer's reluctance to write anything down, is two- pronged. To begin with, lyrics are such a small and specialized art form that they hardly seem worth lengthy public comment. Moreover, why not let them speak (sing) for themselves? Examining songs like the ones in these pages in light of how swiftly stencils change in popular art is not only a stroll down Memory Lane, it smacks of archeology. The counterargument in both cases is the same: any art, no matter how small, is a form of teaching, and for me teaching is a sacred profession. My intellectual life, and to some extent my personal one as well, was guided and changed by teachers: Lucille Pollock, a Latin teacher in ninth grade; Robert Barrow, professor of music at Williams College; and Milton Babbitt, with whom I studied composition after graduating from college. Not to mention my immediate mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, and every other collaborator I've worked with. Reading about how someone else practices 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 mesmerizing but enlightening. It is the best kind of teaching. In my case, writing lyrics for the theater is such a craft and I would like to pass my knowledge of it on, just as Oscar passed his on to me.

There is, however, a third reluctance: How can you comment critically on someone's work without hurting the writer whose work you're dissecting? My answer is cowardly but simple: criticize only the dead. I have never believed in "de mortuis nil nisi bonum"; speaking ill exclusively of the dead seems to me the gentlemanly thing to do. The subject cannot be personally hurt, and his reputation is unlikely to be affected by anything you say, whereas publicly passing judgment on living writers is both hurtful and stifling -- I speak from experience, as someone who has been disdained both by journalists and by many of my songwriting elders and contemporaries as well. Don't look in these pages for critical opinions of the work of anybody but myself and those who can no longer defend themselves -- but who also cannot be upset by anything I have to say. As for my own lyrics, I hope to be able to point out their virtues as well as their flaws. Self-deprecation is easy, self-praise has a bad reputation and is hard for a nice upper-middle-class boy like me who was brought up not to boast.

What you can look for, when helpful, are plot, scene and character descriptions, mixed in with a few anecdotes, to help place each lyric in its appropriate setting, both theatrical and real. They're no substitute for the music, but they may give the lyric a bit more life. What you shouldn't look for is much gossip --  I can promise a little, but not a cornucopia. Gossip depends on memory, and now that I've waited so long to set things down on paper, I don't trust it. Fully aware of the distortions that even yesterday's memory can engender, I've checked the anecdotes and histories accompanying the songs with whoever is alive and still compos mentis. So now, as Portnoy's psychiatrist said, vee may perhaps to begin, yes?

Excerpted from Finishing The Hat; Collective Lyrics (1954-1981) With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines And Anecdotes by Stephen Sondheim. Copyright 2010 by Stephen Sondheim. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday.