Magazine article The Sondheim Review

A Master Class

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

A Master Class

Article excerpt

Critics offer assessments of Finishing the Hat

"A printed collection [of lyrics]," says Stephen Sondheim at the beginning of Finishing the Hat, "is a dubious proposition." Indeed: like making a musical out of the invasion of Japan by the west, or the tortuous painting of a canvas, or the intimate relationships of a group of New Yorkers or the assassination of American presidents. All dubious propositions, all triumphantly carried off, as is this book, one of the greatest hooks ever written about craft in the theatre, which also happens to be a self-portrait of one of the most striking and original artists of our time. It is entirely typical of Sondheim that in writing a hook of such apparently narrow focus, he should have produced a work of vast breadth and scope. The surprise is how moving, how deeply romantic the book is ... If Finishing the Hat is not the Bible of lyric writing, it is certainly its New Testament, expounding an approach to the work which provides the best hope for the future of musical theatre, whose possibilities Sondheim has done more than any other writer to open up.

Simon Callow

The Guardian

What's so great about Finishing the Hat, the new book on songwriting by Stephen Sondheim, is implicit in its title. This self-portrait of the artist as an obsessive lyricist is about a dynamic, unending process; it's about finishing, not having finished. And the mental energy this process emanates is enough to give a reader a satisfying case of brain burn. The lyrics under consideration here, written during a 27-year period, aren't presented as fixed and sacred paradigms, carefully removed from tissue paper for our reverent inspection. They're living, evolving, flawed organisms, still being shaped and poked and talked to by the man who created them. That happens to be Mr. Sondheim, the most (some might say only) significant writer of musicals to emerge during the past half-century. If you're a fan of the genre, how can you not feel privileged to eavesdrop on his dialogue with his own words?

Ben Brantley

The New York Times

For a sizable tribe of acolytes, there is much to worship, analyze and debate in the self-effacing but nonetheless magnificent, altar-like structure that is Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat. In the same way that his sharply psychological and intellectually (as well as tonally) challenging musicals created a new archetype for the Broadway theatre, this consistently compelling book ... attempts to define a new form for a musical memoir, one that weaves biography, commentary and exegesis. It succeeds with radiant intelligence and usually cheerful intensity; Sondheim writes with expected clarity and objectivity, but with an unexpectedly open and humble mien. The authorial voice is not that of a man with a brownstone full of accolades, but that of a man who has something meaningful he wants to pass along after more than a half-century of close observation and diligent participation. ... Finishing the Hat is as emotionally layered as his best plays, and glints with the same searching intelligence. ... It's a superbly plotted work of art, with Sondheim controlling the reader's experience just as he controls an audience's.

Adam Hanft

The Barnes & Noble Review

The essential qualities of Stephen Sondheim's artistic temperament - the peppery precision, the refusal to traffic in received wisdom and the commitment to truth over sentimentality - help turn what could have been a perfunctory curatorial service into the most valuable theatre book of the year. Finishing the Hat, the first of a two-volume set of Sondheim's collected lyrics, springs to life with sharp-eyed annotations, zingy anecdotes and frank appraisals of his most illustrious lyric-writing predecessors. Sondheim on Sondheim alone is worth the price of admission. It's fascinating to hear about the complicated genesis of "Comedy Tonight," the opening number from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum that crucially establishes the show's "elegantly vulgar" comic tone. …

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