According to Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, a good theatre critic is so passionate that he can persuade you to attend something you would never want to see. He might have been issuing reviewers a subtle plea: write something about his new book that will persuade those with little interest in musical theatre to read something they would never want to read.
It is a Herculean task given the nature of Look, I Made a Hat, an exhaustive collection of lyrics interspersed with Sondheim’s curmudgeonly remarks about the world of theatre. Sondheim is the preeminent [End Page 627] composer/lyricist of the American stage and is so influential that New York Magazine once ran a cover story that dared to ask the question, “Is Stephen Sondheim God?” The answer is not as definitive as one might expect. For all his fame, Sondheim has long been accused of being the cold intellect, writing music that is “unhummable” and lyrics that keep his audience at arm’s length.
At first glance, Hat threatens to be the literary proof of these accusations. It is an uneven companion to Finishing the Hat (2010), a collection of lyrics from the first half of Sondheim’s career. To his credit, he attempts to make it accessible to neophytes by including a plot synopsis between each song. Still, the inclusion of birthday songs written for friends, and a glossary explaining the references, feels more than a bit narcisstic. It would be all too easy to write off Hat as little more than a coffee-table book for the musical fanatic in your life.
Thankfully, Hat ultimately proves to be something of an inadvertent memoir. It is stunningly intimate, as Sondheim graciously lays bare his creative life. For an artist, nothing could be more personal. His exhaustive set of lyrics and rewritten lyrics (and re-rewritten lyrics) may appear self-aggrandizing, but like the best musicals, the songs occur only in service of the plot. His narrative is his journey through the act of creation, and in giving us his lyrics, he delivers the portrait of the artist as a developing man. It is a compelling window into an artist’s methods, which, of course, means a window into the artist himself. This is not the most conventional way to structure a memoir, but then what would you expect from the composer of a plotless musical (Company) or a vaudeville about American assassins (Assassins)?
The title of Hat comes from Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize–winning musical Sunday in the Park with George. During the first act, we find the artist Georges Seurat in the process of creating A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte . Lost in the work, Seurat ignores life as he struggles to finish a minor part of his masterpiece, a single hat:
And when the woman that you wanted goes. You can say to yourself, “Well, I give what I give.” But the woman who won’t wait for you knows That however you live, There’s a part of you always standing by, Mapping out the sky, Finishing a hat, Starting on a hat, Finishing a hat… Look, I made a hat Where there never was a hat.(27)
“Finishing the Hat,” writes Sondheim, “reflects an emotional experience shared by everybody to some degree or other, but more keenly and more often by creative artists . . . that phenomenon of losing the world” (ibid.). It is a telling remark. Like Seurat, Sondheim is a man who is always busy “finishing the hat”; his creative life is the most important aspect of his life. From this perspective, Hat might as well be a diary.
Sondheim also takes the opportunity to deliver a playwriting masterclass: “Less Is More / Content Dictates Form / God Is in the Details / all in the service of / Clarity / without which nothing else matters” (xv). Nonetheless, Sondheim’s primary focus is the art of collaboration. Librettists are the unsung heroes of his world, and it is to them that he...