An Endlessly Rewarding Companion

By Skiles, Christa | The Sondheim Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

An Endlessly Rewarding Companion


Skiles, Christa, The Sondheim Review


Look, I Made a Hat is essential reading for Sondheim fans

Stephen Sondheim is not a deity, contrary to facetious song lyrics he contributed to the 2010 biographical musical revue Sondheim. on Sondheim: "Wrote the score to Sweeney Todd/With a nod/To de Sade -/Well, he's odd./Well, he's God!" But at a mortal 81 years old, Sondheim is a national treasure, a giant in the world of musical theater who changed the structure and sound of the form in 20th-century masterpieces including West Side Story, Follies, Company and Sweeney Todd. Speaking of heaven, though, here's Look, I Made a Hat, the second part of Sondheim's two-volume collection of lyrics, this one spanning 1981-2011, with additional bits and pieces. Talmudically thorough and devilishly diverting with what the author refers to as "attendant comments, amplifications, dogmas, harangues, digressions, anecdotes and miscellany," the book is divine. ... Look, I Made a Hat, together with Finishing the Hat, makes an enormously satisfying journal by one of the great theatrical minds of our time, a guide and touchstone for who knows how many future great theatrical minds. Meanwhile, Stephen Sondheim's confession that "I have successfully avoided enjoying opera all my life" is reassuring proof that the man, however godlike, is indeed human.

Lisa Schwarzbaum

Entertainment Weekly

As with Finishing the Hat, the first volume, much of the excitement in Look, I Made a Hat derives not from the lyrics themselves but in the new writing: the thorough introductory notes describing the gestation of the musicals; the explications of certain songs' creation (or, in many cases, elimination); the incidental revelations, like Mr. Sondheim's frank confession that "I'm not as enthralled by the human voice as I would like to be." The most incendiary material in the earlier book - if you happen to be a devoted fan of musical theater, that is -derived from Mr. Sondheim's rigorous, eloquent analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of lyricists from the genre's so-called "Golden Age." In the new book we have to settle for briefer assessments of "underwriters," lyricists he wishes wrote as much for the theater as they did for movies and the pop charts; and "one-show wonders" like Richard Wilbur and DuBose Heyward. ... There are also longer reflections on theater criticism (of which he laments a gaping lack) and the lesser practice of theater reviewing (which he begrudges as a necessary evil); the absurdities of recklessly giving awards, which does not belie the pleasures of receiving them; and the uses and abuses of revivals, among other topics. All are rich in perceptions and pithy phrasing, like his blunt assessment of the value of collecting kudos: "Awards have three things to offer: cash, confidence and bric-a-brac."

Charles Isherwood

The New York Times

In introducing Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim notes that his previous book's reticence disappointed some reviewers. Their prime complaint was that "I didn't speak enough about my personal life, 'personal' being the euphemism for 'intimate,' which is the euphemism for 'sexual.' ... If I'd wanted to write a memoir, I would have, but I don't, and I didn't. Caveat to the general: This book is going to be no more satisfying to the seriously prurient than the previous one." What we have instead is an outstanding reconstruction of rethinking and revision by an outstanding lyricist-composer: a lucid chronicling of the complexities that can arise in shaping even the sparest song lyric. Some of Sondheim's artistic forebears have left valuable accounts, both formal and anecdotal, about their struggles in fusing melody with American speech ... But none of these other practitioners can match Sondheim for depth of analysis, for the clarity and patience he shows, over hundreds of pages, in scrutinizing the all but ineffable process by which words on a page are translated into an effective staged performance. ... If "what lasts in the theater is character," these two collections ultimately encourage us to form a portrait and a judgment of the reserved man behind them. …

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