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Look, I Made a Hat

Two Halloweens ago, I wrote about the new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes by Stephen Sondheim, which that day was the featured cover review (by Paul Simon) in the Sunday NYT. A week later, Joe Nocera wrote about the book in the NYT arts section, prompting me to buy it, and to write about it once again.

In November, the successor appeared: Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany. (Yes, you can now buy a boxed set, with the name Hat Box: The Collected Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.) When I saw Charles Isherwood’s daily NYT review in early December, I didn’t order it. Instead, I added it to my Amazon wish list. A week later, Brad Leithauser reviewed it in the Sunday NYT and I still didn’t order it. I was patient. A week later, on Christmas, it arrived. Santa had gotten the message. (Thanks, Jessica.)

I took my first close look only last night. It’s hard to read without having recordings of all the shows at hand, and without playing them as you study the lyrics. But putting the lyrics aside, there’s so much else to marvel at, from the photos to the lists of original casts to, especially, Sondheim’s accounts of how shows came into being, why songs got moved, what logic lies behind the rhymes. I’ve barely scratched the surface.

And before I knew it, I had turned back to the first volume, with its own treasures. I was singing along to “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures; reading Sondheim’s blast of famed theater critic John Lahr’s Harper’s piece on him and Sweeney Todd on the grounds that Lahr “had merely read an early rehearsal script, although he didn’t indicate that to the reader;” and then moving on to Sweeney Todd‘s “Pretty Women.”

The new book begins with Sunday in the Park with George. I’ve explained before that it’s been “our musical” since our honeymoon, when we saw it on Broadway while staying at my (then-recently-dead) grandmother’s apartment a mile north. So many great songs. Last night, I read the lyrics of “The Day Off (Dog Song),” which is sung by George as he sketches Spot, the Boatman’s dog —

If the head was smaller …
If the tail were longer …
If he faced the water …
If the paws were hidden …
If the neck was darker …
If the back was curved …
More like the parasol …

(Humming)

Bumbum bum bumbumbum
Bumbum bum …

— and soon I was humming along, with Mandy Patinkin’s voice in my head.

Bumbum bum bumbumbum
Bumbum bum …

More shade …
More tail …
More grass! …
Would you like some more grass?
Mmmm …

Ruff! Ruff!

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Categories: Books, Theater
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