On Tuesday, Stephen Sondheim will publish Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954–1981) With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. It’s a fascinating, 480-page collection with enough gossip to keep the Broadway babies at AllThatChat buzzing for weeks. Sondheim takes swipes at Oscar Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner, and John Lahr — and talks about how he tried to slip an orgasm and the F-word into two now-classic musicals. After the jump, the juiciest ten bits.
He thinks that his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, wrote some terrible lyrics.
On Hammerstein’s “A Cock-eyed Optimist” from South Pacific, which includes the lyric, “When the sky is a bright canary yellow / I forget every cloud I’ve ever seen”: “When is the sky a bright canary yellow? As far as I know, only in the eye of a hurricane. If the sky were a bright canary yellow, I’d run to the nearest storm cellar. And even if such a sky exists, how often would Nellie see it? She may be a cockeyed optimist, but not very often.”
On Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” from The Sound of Music, which includes the lyric, “To sing through the night / Like a lark that is learning to pray”: “And while we’re at it, how can you tell a lark that is just learning to pray from one who’s actually praying? Wait a minute — a lark praying? What are we talking about?”
He also thought that Lorenz Hart had some clunkers, too.
On Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” which includes the lyric, “Your looks are laughable / Unphotographable / But you’re my favorite work of art”: “Unless the object of the singer’s affection is a vampire, surely what Hart means is unphotogenic. Only vampires are unphotographable, but affectionate ’-enic’ rhymes are hard to come by.”
On Hart’s “My Romance,” which includes the lyric, “My romance / doesn’t need a castle rising in Spain / Nor a dance To a constantly surprising refrain”: “What refrain is constantly surprising? Maybe one by Alban Berg, but nothing you’d ever hear on a dance floor. Even Cole Porter’s refrains were only intermittently surprising — if a refrain were constantly surprising, it would cease to be a refrain. And even if such a thing existed, would a dance to an occasionally surprising or even a totally unsurprising one be less romantic?”
However, Sondheim thinks Cole Porter was a genius, even if he was a little too gay.
“He and [Lorenz] Hart are the two acknowledged gay lyricists in the American pantheon, but Hart’s style conceals his homosexuality; Porter’s parades it.”
And he really dislikes Alan Jay Lerner, the author of My Fair Lady.
“It’s hard to comment on or even write about Alan Jay Lerner because his work is so professional and uninteresting when compared to that of the other major theater lyricists.”
When writing “Gee, Officer Krupke” for West Side Story, he attempted to be the first Broadway lyricist to say the word “fuck.”
“I realized, once I thought of the title, that the song would afford me the opportunity of being the first lyricist to use a serious four-letter obscenity in a Broadway musical … [but] such language had never been heard in a musical, and here was my chance to make my mark by having a loud choral ‘Fuck you!’ as the punchline of a song …. All was well until we played it for the producers … I was in despair until Lenny came up with ‘Krup You!’, which may be the best lyric line in the show … ”
Then, when writing the judge’s flagellation song for Sweeney Todd, he tried for another first.
“I had hoped here to be the first [songwriter] to have a character reach an orgasm in the middle of a song. Once again I was disappointed — the song was cut during previews.”
He invented the phrase “everything’s coming up roses.”
“It took me a week of sporadic thinking and jotting to come up with a title for the song, a phrase that could serve as a refrain. The difficulty was to find a way to say ‘Things are going to be better than ever’ without being flatly colloquial on one hand or fancifully imagistic (à la West Side Story) on the other. I was proud of the solution, and especially so when I picked up the NYT one morning in 1968 and read the first sentence in the leading editorial: ‘Everything is not coming up roses in Vietnam.’ I had passed a phrase into the language.”
He doesn’t care for these newfangled ironic musicals.
“As I write this, a [new kind of musical] has recently overrun the theater like kudzu: the self-referential ‘metamusical,’ which makes fun of its betters by imitating their clichés while drawing attention to what it’s doing, thus justifying its lack of originality without the risk of criticism.”
The most scathing review of Sweeney Todd was by a critic who hadn’t seen it, John Lahr.
“The most egregious example of critical resentment was probably that of John Lahr, who panned the show scathingly in Harper’s. It was part of an essay for the magazine propounding the thesis that I represented the death of the American musical … I wrote Lahr himself a letter, saying that although it was his privilege to give a show both barrels of his contempt, I thought he ought to see it first … He responded. The note was short and to the point: ‘I guess you’re right,’ he replied.”
There’s only one song he considers personal.
“The only song I’ve written which is an immediate expression of a personal internal experience is ‘Finishing the Hat’ from Sunday in the Park with George. “