Finishing the Hat
I had a post two Sundays ago about Paul Simon’s NYT review that day of Stephen Sondheim’s new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. Much as I love Sondheim, I wasn’t prompted to buy the book. This past Sunday, NYT business columnist Joe Nocera had a piece about the book in the arts section.
It turns out that Nocera is a Sondheim fanatic.
When I fall for something, I fall hard. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever fallen as hard for anything as I did for Mr. Sondheim’s music. His songs and shows became central to my life, insinuating themselves into my heart and mind. I’m a business writer, but I’d often find myself, in the middle of trying to write a tough-minded article, haunted by some Sondheim song that I couldn’t get out of my head.
Nocera writes movingly about what Sondheim has meant to him, and about what he learned from the book.
The discordant experience of listening to him while reading him made me think hard, in a way I hadn’t before, about why I found his songs so affecting. Why did his best songs make me cry?
My assumption had always been that Mr. Sondheim’s skills as a composer were the root cause. Back when I was first learning about him, I was stunned to discover that the songs in some of his early shows like “Company” (1970) were originally viewed by some critics as “cold.” To me his music seems the opposite of cold; his melodies have always seemed warm and inviting, while his harmonies have invariably stuck with me. I know nothing about music theory, but I do know that great composers use certain chords and rhythms and harmonies to evoke sadness or joy or melancholy. I suspect that if Mr. Sondheim were to write a book about his music, rather than his lyrics, he would explain just as clinically how he creates mood with harmony.
But reading “Finishing the Hat” made me realize that my assumption had been way too blithe; it was a way of letting myself off the hook. What I had long admired about Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics — what everyone admires, really — was their sheer gleaming intelligence. But what I had been missing — and what I could see, at last, on the page, as I listened to his songs — was their wealth of emotion, and how often they directly spoke to me.
On reading Nocera, I hesitated no longer. I ordered the book last weekend and it came yesterday. No revelations of my own yet. I’m just getting started. But after paging through the Sweeney Todd chapter last night and noticing the multiple appearances of the song Johanna, I couldn’t get its melody out of my head the rest of the night. And the photos are great.