Finishing the Hat, the first of two long-awaited volumes of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, wit and wisdom, reminds me of another exacting exercise in self re-evaluation: the New York Edition of the fiction of Henry James. In the eighteen prefaces he wrote for the twenty-four-volume set, James revealed the sparks that found ready kindling in his imagination, and shared his many struggles to coax them into stories and novels. James could detect a spark in something as fleeting as casual conversation: “A mere floating particle in the stream of talk.” Because the Broadway musical is a collaborative effort, many of Sondheim’s shows have been set alight by other people’s sparks; but regarding Pacific Overtures (1976), for one, Sondheim shares a truly Jamesian moment of inspiration. He recalls coming upon a Japanese screen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “It was like a sudden explosion; it seemed to grow as I looked at it.” The screen, Sondheim suggests, was not just a piece of japonaiserie; rather, it was an aesthetic commandment to honor the principle of “less is more,” not as an abstract idea but as an emotional imperative.
Spanning the first three decades of Sondheim’s career, and revealing more of his creative process than James’s prefaces did of his own, Finishing the Hat includes rejects, rewrites and substitutes of lyrics from thirteen shows that together illuminate the dark, devious road leading to Broadway hits and flops. Like James, Sondheim transformed a popular genre often aimed at the young into an art for, and about, adults. Writing for a smart audience, James and Sondheim have no qualms about appearing smarter-than-thou, but Sondheim is smart about being smarter. Whereas James allowed his followers to call him The Master, Sondheim wrote a tongue-in-cheek song for the revue Sondheim on Sondheim (2010) in which the cast hails him as God. Sondheim, like James, is also ruthless when assessing the talents of famous predecessors. In sidebar “heresies” planted throughout Finishing the Hat, he pillories Ira Gershwin (“His work bespeaks a generous, warm and talented man, but his brother was a genius”), Lorenz Hart (“the laziest of the pre-eminent lyricists”) and Noël Coward (“the Master of Blather”). Sondheim sounds mild compared with James, who practiced summary executions: “Our Mutual Friend…is poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion.” “Mr. Trollope is simply unable to depict a mind in any liberal sense of the word.” Not even Tolstoy is spared: “From no other great projector of the human image and the human idea is so much truth to be extracted under an equal leakage of its value.”
These judgments would sound coldblooded if they were not part of an encompassing project of self-criticism. Following a common aesthetic commandment—thou shalt not tell, but show—the work of both artists reveals the inner life of characters rather than showcasing the cleverness of its creator. This approach requires scrupulous revision and refinement. It demands technique. Technical acuity, moreover, is not empty virtuosity but a form of knowledge and, eventually, sympathy. Every page of Finishing the Hat is marked by Sondheim’s belief that being an artist requires intellectual vigilance. As James famously advised, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” Sondheim’s sympathies, deep rather than broad, extend mainly to other perspicacious characters; yet his best work strips bare the pitfalls of intelligence, especially when it is allied with the imagination. Intelligence, he shows, is amoral. The painter George in Sunday in the Park With George (1984) and the serial killer in Sweeney Todd (1979) are versions of the same character: brilliant, obsessed and blind to the sources of their own cruelty.
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Art isn’t easy, as Sondheim wrote, especially art based on a highly self-conscious aesthetic; and over the years Sondheim has taken on projects whose difficulties would terrify most composer/lyricists, let alone their financial backers. A Japanese musical (Pacific Overtures)? A show about presidential assassins (Assassins)? Critics—champions of Sondheim as well as skeptics—have often oversimplified the shows on the assumption that Sondheim is a perennially clever kid rather than a stern ethicist. John Lahr, for one, described him as peddling “boulevard nihilism” in Sweeney Todd. It’s not hard to find a character in the shows who sees the world through the eyes of Holden Caulfield—life sucks, everyone’s a phony, we die alone—but that view is part of the story, not an op-ed published under Sondheim’s byline. One could just as easily accuse Sondheim of dabbling in “boulevard idealism” in Merrily We Roll Along (1981), which tracks the relation of innocence and experience in reverse chronology, ending with a bright-eyed affirmation of youthful idealism as corny as Kansas in August.