Friday, June 3, 2011

Into the words

I got Stephen Sondheim's book Finishing the Hat for Christmas (obvs), and I spent a lot of that snowed-in vacation reading it. But I didn't feel moved to attempt a full on review, because it strikes me as a fans-only sort of book. You know if you'll like it. You'll like it if you think you will. Just having an authorized print edition of all these lyrics is a treat; the commentary (and the memorabilia) is a bonus. But I wouldn't bother recommending the book to someone who wasn't already convinced of Sondheim's significance and at least somewhat familiar with the shows included. I don't know what such a person would get out of it, especially without the music to go along with the words -- better to listen to a few cast albums. And as a book, it's not a masterpiece -- it's interesting but repetitive, not as tightly conceived or edited as it could have been. A candy store for a fan, and I'll be in line for the next volume, naturally. But I'm not sure non-fans should feel compelled to pay attention.

I was surprised, then, by all the serious reviews of Finishing the Hat I saw, and by how they continued to trickle out throughout the spring. I was finally moved to write about it myself by reading Judith Flanders's take in the Times Literary Supplement.

First, she says this, which I think is just right:
[I]t is a partial autobiography of a life in the theatre told in the interstices of a very useful – and enjoyable – collection of his lyrics, combined with introductions and running commentaries telling us why a song didn’t work, or why a replacement did. This part of the book is a revelation and a pleasure, setting out Sondheim’s beliefs and principles, and outlining, in a way academics mostly fail to do, how a show actually works.
There were places I wished he'd said more, and places where I disagreed with his judgment (I will never be convinced that the rewritten Merrily We Roll Along is, overall, an improvement on the admittedly flawed original). But I found it fascinating -- as I think any fan would.

Flanders also pinpoints the reason Finishing the Hat left me with a sour taste:

Much of Sondheim’s charm on the page comes from his curmudgeonly yet earnest persona.... Earnestness can swiftly transform itself into pernicketiness, however, and Sondheim is pernickety with the best of them. Choruses singing the same words together enrage him: “Do all the settlers in Oklahoma who claim that ‘Every night my honey lamb and I / Sit alone and talk / And watch the hawk / Makin’ lazy circles in the sky’ really do so? Does everybody have a companion? And do they all bird-watch every night? . . . Do all the Seabees in South Pacific think there is nothing like a dame? What about the misogynists? . . . Or if there are no misogynists, are there no homosexuals?”.
In offering critiques of his fellow musical-theatre-writers, Sondheim set himself a policy of speaking ill only of the dead. This is probably wise, but it does mean he ends up going out of his way to find fault with the masters of the past while completely ignoring the trespasses of his much more deserving contemporaries. He takes special delight in finding fault with Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics, I suspect because he thinks it's unexpected, given his personal connection and professional debt to the man. But if you've heard or read interviews with Sondheim over the years, you won't be surprised; he has made known his low opinion of Hammerstein's overreliance on bird imagery (for instance) many times before. I don't have a problem with his offering criticism of other lyricists, in theory; it's an illuminating window into his own sense of craft. But I did find the self-congratulatory tone rather tedious. At some point he might have stopped prefacing all of his critical remarks with disclaimers about how shocking it must be to read them. The subtitle of the book -- Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes -- covers it pretty well. You are a man of towering artistic integrity. You can stop reminding us. (This is an area where tighter editing would probably have helped -- once everything was compiled, the repetitiveness should have been brought under control.)

Anyway, back to the quotation above: "pernickety" is a nice (and British) term for it. I think he's trying to be amusing, but it's not nearly as funny or as charming as he believes. (Especially since it goes on, in that case, for quite a bit longer than what Flanders has quoted.) It's one thing for him to use examples of other people's writing to illustrate conventions that, while effective in other contexts, don't work for him. I respect that Sondheim thinks hard about why every character sings what they sing when they sing it. But although he does, in other places, offer insightful explanations of how musical-theatre conventions have changed, in passages like this he seems bent on convincing the reader that it isn't just him; that really any sensible person should object to the spectacle of a male chorus singing "There Is Nothing Like a Dame." I don't find that approach very useful, and in fact I find it rather patronizing, as someone who accepts those conventions and thinks they work, on the whole, rather well. (The line he quotes from "Oklahoma!" happens to be one of my favorite lyrics in that show, bird and all.) You might as well scoff, "How do all those dancers just happen to know the same steps?!" "Oh, I'm supposed to believe everyone who lives in River City can sing?"

What really put me off was Sondheim's take on Lorenz Hart. By the time he finally treats Hart in full (on p. 152), he has already taken several preparatory swipes at him -- in the index, there's a sub-entry for "Hart, Lorenz, careless lyric writing of." So you expect him to bring the goods. And you get...this:
Sacrifice of meaning for rhyme: "Your looks are laughable / Unphotographable" (from "My Funny Valentine" in Babes in Arms). 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.
Oh come on. That's not exacting, it's just peevish and humorless. I am eternally grateful for the large body of work Sondheim has created, and I hope he gives us lots more to see before he's done. But reading stuff like that made me grateful that his standards, fine as they are, are not everybody's standards. Thank God there's a Sondheim, and thank God there's only one.

Flanders continues the paragraph I began above:
In small doses, this is delightful. Less amusing is his tendency to bear grudges. When Follies was first staged, “A critic named Arlene Croce” misheard “Beauty celestial / The best y’l / Agree” as “the bestial agree”, and wrote that she thought comparing middle-aged women to beasts was “disgusting”. “Setting aside the possibility of wilful bitchery or natural stupidity on her part”, Sondheim snaps, “her tirade cautioned me to be careful about aural ambiguities.” Arlene Croce has the status to be able to take care of herself, but there are other, similar assaults.
Here I must differ. Flanders seems mainly to be rallying to the honor of Arlene Croce, and you know, perhaps she is "able to take care of herself" -- but did she? That is, did she ever publish a retraction or apology? I ask because I'm not sure why I should feel sorry for her, otherwise. (Because she's not dead? Is that what makes the distinction between a "delightful" complaint and a "grudge"?) To hang an accusation of misogyny on a word choice that is not actually in the work under review is a major, embarrassing, inexcusable mistake, and it's the sort of thing that gives critics as a group a bad name -- and yet never seems to give individual critics a bad name. Sondheim is actually rather good-natured in telling this story, which he uses as an opportunity to recall some other misheard-lyric anecdotes. And his complaint is totally fair. "Ms. Croce's confusion makes no sense at all," he points out. "If the ladies are 'bestial,' what are they agreeing on?" Those moments, when Sondheim talked about the way a show was received and the infuriatingly stupid things that were written about his work, were my favorite "whines and anecdotes" in the book -- stories only he can tell, and stories he absolutely should tell, in my opinion. My only complaint was that he didn't name the venue in which Croce's review was published. (Oh, by the way -- and speaking of critical sloppiness -- Flanders has slightly misquoted Sondheim. First of all, the lyric as written is "The best you'll," not "y'l" -- she's cheated it to make Croce's mistake seem more natural. And what he wrote is, "Nevertheless, whether it can be attributed to willful bitchery or natural stupidity on her part, her tirade cautioned me to be careful about aural ambiguities." She, or her editors, made some errors in the first chunk of text I quoted, too. It's "settlers in Oklahoma!" -- the show, not simply the territory. It's "a" hawk, not "the" hawk -- a double mistake, since she's misquoting both the book and the original song lyric. And that second "every night" should be italicized.)

Another critic whom Sondheim calls out is John Lahr. Now, it has long been obvious to me that Lahr's reviews in The New Yorker are heavily dependent on the copy of the script he has in front of him -- whether he's padding out his copy with all of the show's best jokes or bizarrely praising Arthur Laurents for cutting the blackouts between scenes in West Side Story. (In 2009.) But I figured this was just because he's an old man. Apparently it's actually a longstanding habit. Take a gander at this, from Sondheim's commentary on Sweeney Todd (emphasis mine):
The most egregious example of critical resentment was probably that of John Lahr, who panned the show scathingly in Harper's Magazine. It was part of an essay propounding the thesis that I represented the death of the American musical, having taken all the joy and spontaneity out of this beloved, exuberant art form and infused it with an impotent sourness.... This assessment would have been his right to make had he seen the show, but he hadn't. He had merely read an early rehearsal script, although he didn't indicate that to the reader. I protested to the editor, who added and explanatory demurrer as a footnote to the review. I then 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. Unlike Peter C. Davis in the case of A Little Night Music, Lahr responded. The note was succinct, not to say dismissive of a trivial objection. "I guess you're right," he replied.
And he never did it again! Oh, wait....

John Lahr also "has the status to be able to take care of himself." But a story like that makes me wonder whether he should. If an artist's being annoyed by this sort of thing is holding a grudge, then let's hear it for grudges -- and I want to hear more of them.

I enjoyed David Schiff's review of Finishing the Hat in The Nation. It's mostly just a fine essay on Sondheim and his work, with some very sharp insights into character and craft (analysis of the sort that the book itself doesn't really offer). I'm not sure I buy his take on the rewritten Merrily, but he's excellent on Sunday and Into the Woods.

No comments: