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If nothing else, the second volume of Stephen Sondheim’s collected lyrics – collating material from the three decades to 2011 – confirms the impression made by his first compendium, Finishing the Hat, that the New York-born composer and lyricist is one of the most articulate, alert and acute artists of his generation.

Covering a period that includes three of Sondheim’s most finessed works – the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and the award-laden but still seriously under-rated Assassins – this ‘final’ volume, annotated with ‘attendant comments, amplifications, dogmas, harangues, digressions, anecdotes and miscellany’ also includes, completists will be delighted to know, lyrics overlooked and omitted from the first.

Conspicuously missing, of course, is the same level of attention given over to Sondheim’s thoughts on his role as composer. But what is here is a veritable treasure trove of information about, and insights into, the process of creating lyrics that seem to osmotically connect themselves to music in ways that startle, evoke and persuade to an extent altogether unique in musical theatre.

Especially refreshing throughout is the apparent absence of ego. While Sondheim clearly approaches his craft with absolute seriousness, interrogating both process and product with unblinking directness, he can be deliciously opinionated and waspish in commenting on the nature of collaboration and the intricacies and oddities of transforming an idea into a snatch of dialogue, a song or a complete show. His comment that ‘writing is a form of mischief’ seems particularly telling.

Written with all the clear-sighted brilliance that make his lyrics so telling and transformative, and copiously illustrated with black- and-white photographs, facsimiles of memorabilia, Sondheim’s own handwritten manuscripts and an invaluable (if only ‘selected’) discography, Look I Made a Hat is a triumph of a book. For admirers of the man it is a simply essential purchase and a real bargain at the asking price.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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