Stephen Sondheim can’t explain why “Send in the Clowns” is the song that made him a star beyond Broadway.
Judy Collins, then Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand made ever-bigger-selling recordings of the modest number from Sondheim’s 1973 show, “A Little Night Music,” he writes in “Finishing the Hat.” His candid, immensely entertaining collection of lyrics and commentary from the first half of his astonishing career carries the apt subtitle, “Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes.”
“Why so many fine (and not so fine) singers have recorded ‘Send in the Clowns’ is a mystery to me,” he writes. “Not that I don’t think the song is eminently worth singing, but why this ballad of all the ones I’ve written?”
There are so many pleasure-giving surprises and revelations in “Finishing the Hat,” that it’s hard to know where to begin. Pick just about any page.
Threaded through the lyrics of shows from “Saturday Night” in 1954 through “Merrily We Roll Along” in 1981 is some of the most articulate commentary ever written about the process of creating Broadway musicals. Sondheim deftly elucidates the inner workings of his own art and the collaborations that have produced a catalog of works that continuously rewrote the rules of musical theater.
Among the early highlights: “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” for which he wrote the lyrics, and the landmark musicals “Company” and “Sweeney Todd.”
He’s equally adept at jabbing (and worse) several sainted colleagues, notably Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart and Noel Coward, not to mention his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, the author of “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” “Getting to Know You” and “My Favorite Things.”
The barbs tend to be couched in the manner of a loving son gently revealing the father’s shortcomings:
“The flaws in Oscar’s lyrics are more apparent than in those of others because he is speaking deeply from himself through his characters and therefore has no persona to hide behind,” Sondheim writes. “In the end, it’s the monumentality that matters. Few lyrics can match ‘Soliloquy’ or ‘What’s the Use of Wond’rin’ for digging into the heart of what a theater song can be.”
Sondheim has been the most analyzed, criticized, lauded, dismissed, celebrated musical-theater figure of the postwar era. He’s used to having his lyrics picked apart for clues to the man who created them. This book’s very title (from a show that isn’t even to be covered until the anticipated follow-up volume) refers to a song about a diffident artist accused of hiding behind his work.
The response to an earlier song was enlightening.
“To believe that ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ is my credo is to believe that I’m the prototypical Repressed Intellectual and that explains everything about me,” Sondheim writes crankily in a book that bristles with a magnificent crankiness. “Perhaps being tagged with a cliche shouldn’t bother me, but it does, and to my chagrin I realize it means that I care more about how I’m perceived than I wish I did. I’d like to think this concern hasn’t affected my work, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it has.”
Each chapter opens with background on the musical at hand, providing pitch-perfect notes on his collaborators, among them Jerome Robbins, Hal Prince, Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein. Considering the many crimes of rhymers (chief among them near-rhyming and over-rhyming), Sondheim is no less hard on himself than he is on others.
“Crowded and incessant rhyming is something I deplore in the work of others (Ira Gershwin in particular) but something I’m not always able to avoid myself, I regret to say.”
“Post-Sondheimian” is the musical-theater cliche Sondheim may have to account for in the afterlife, should there be one. As to his own unique genius, it’s warmly revealed in every sentence here.
“Finishing the Hat” is from Knopf (445 pages, $39.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)