I posted about this book before, but I hadn’t read it then. I have now.
I’d put off reading it for a variety of reasons; too demanding to be picked up for a short time, too precious to be wasted in casual skimming, literally and figuratively too heavy. ‘Finishing The Hat’ is an explication by Stephen Sondheim of his writing processes, and, it turns out, one of the most essential books any writer could ever hope to read.
Whatever you write, there’s a lot here to learn. Creating lyrics may seem a minor branch of writing, but they’re not. In Sondheim’s hands they’re plot, character and action all condensed into the purest, most elegant style. Sondheim’s ascetic approach to his craft means that he’s critical of others – and himself – to a surprisingly frank degree, but that’s what is called for here (although it has clearly upset some Amazon readers who presumably wanted something warmer and blander).
His aphorisms – ‘God is in the details’, ‘less is more’, ‘content dictates form’ and others are applied to his works and the works of his near-contemporaries, although he points out that he only criticises the dead, which reverses traditional thinking.
Two things quickly become clear. First, Sondheim makes you realise that only those who take their work very seriously indeed, applying a long process of extremely rigorous thought to seemingly frivolous ideas, need apply to the pantheon of greatness. Second, this exactitude means that he sometimes can’t see the wood for the trees in his own work, and what’s more, he knows it.
He admits that his academic approach to writing means that cleverness sometimes swamps joy, in the same way that an opera singer is often unable to sing jazz, but when the purity works you get a major harmonic that produces something sublime.
The book – clearly the first of two volumes – breaks down lyrical construction and appends with footnotes, adding overviews of productions. A familiarity with his work is required, and there is a double CD called ‘Sondheim On Sondheim’ which strikes me as an ideal crib-sheet. It’s a viewpoint-changing book that will make many writers despair of ever producing even one of the song lyrics, let alone a career’s worth.
The book reproduces a heft body of work from the first half of Sondheim’s career, but only half of it was used and an even smaller amount was successful -a ratio with which every commercially-produced writer is familiar. But the sheer weight of invention is dazzling. As Hapgood says in ‘Anyone Can Whistle’, ‘The opposite of safe is out, the opposite of out is in, so anyone who’s safe is ‘in’.’ Sondheim’s not safe, but he’s finally in.