Finishing the Hat is the first part of a review of his work by the genius composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who died last November aged 91.

There is so much I wanted to discuss about it! I toyed with the idea of reviewing this as a series, over several Fridays, for example. I’ve been a fan of Mr Sondheim for a long time. Seen, done and got the music for several/most of his shows. I’d not got the music for as many as I thought (now rectified). I’ve have done Sweeney Todd twice with amateur companies (and seen at least eight pro productions). Worked backstage on West Side Story. Fallen in love with Adrian Lester as Bobby of Company, sat in the front row at the Donmar Warehouse.

But I thought a series (which I suggested last week) might be too self-indulgent!

Having got this book for a birthday present (thank you, Dawn), I opened it a few Christmases ago. First thought–how do I read this? So it went back on the shelf, but stayed on my TBR currently reading shelf, while I pondered. The solution was to devote the ‘dead’ time between Christmas and New Year to it. I would read while listening to the music–following along in some places.

BBC Night

And then Mr Sondheim died. The BBC, in an unusual flush of wisdom, devoted nine hours of programming to their Sondheim back catalogue.

It started at 2 pm on Monday 27th with the ‘making of West Side Story’ which I’d seen twice before. Then they showed West Side Story (original film)–I’d been to see the new one the previous week (it’s excellent).

Then a switch to BBC4 for the wonderful Prom concert to honour Sondheim on his 80th birthday. Apart from Maria Friedman and Caroline O’Connor, it featured Bryn Terfel as Sweeney Todd, and Judi Dench reprising her role as Desiree in A Little Night Music (RNT). Plus an interview with the birthday boy, etc. The final two hours of the Beeb’s marathon were clips: Sondheim interviews, excerpts from Company (from the Olivier Awards) and others, and songs. These were by the most eclectic range of people: Sammy Davis, Matt Monro, Eartha Kitt….. as well as young people like Michael Ball. He must be 50 now!

Anyhow, suffice it to say I had a Sondheim fest over Christmas, and it was probably my best Christmas ever. I only need Book 2, and my right arm will be complete again.

finishing the hat stephen sondheim

Finishing the Hat:

Collected Lyrics, 1954-1981, With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes (The Hat Box #1)

by Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim has won seven Tonys, an Academy Award, seven Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors. His career has spanned more than half a century, his lyrics have become synonymous with musical theater and popular culture, and in Finishing the Hat—titled after perhaps his most autobiographical song, from Sunday in the Park with George—Sondheim has not only collected his lyrics for the first time, he is giving readers a rare personal look into his life as well as his remarkable productions.

Along with the lyrics for all of his musicals from 1954 to 1981—including West Side Story, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd—Sondheim treats us to never-before-published songs from each show, songs that were cut or discarded before seeing the light of day. He discusses his relationship with his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, and his collaborations with extraordinary talents such as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Ethel Merman, Richard Rodgers, Angela Lansbury, Harold Prince and a panoply of others. The anecdotes—filled with history, pointed observations and intimate details—transport us back to a time when theater was a major pillar of American culture. Best of all, Sondheim appraises his work and dissects his lyrics, as well as those of others, offering unparalleled insights into songwriting that will be studied by fans and aspiring songwriters for years to come. 

Accompanying Sondheim’s sparkling writing are behind-the-scenes photographs from each production, along with handwritten music and lyrics from the songwriter’s personal collection. 

Penetrating and surprising, poignant, funny and sometimes provocative, Finishing the Hat is not only an informative look at the art and craft of lyric writing, it is a history of the theater that belongs on the same literary shelf as Moss Hart’s Act One and Arthur Miller’s Timebends. It is also a book that will leave you humming the final bars of Merrily We Roll Along, while eagerly anticipating the next volume, which begins with the opening lines of Sunday in the Park with George(goodreads)

My Review

It’s magnificent.

I learnt so much, not just about the shows I didn’t know, and the process behind the ones I did, and the things changed, cut or discarded before even the try-outs.

There’s so much of lyric writing that any writer could do well to consider. Not just about rhyme, internal rhyme, dissonance, stress, and succinctness, but about the art of writing. About plot and character. About the three fundamentals, which we all know, or think we do, until we come to edit our own work. And also, the reasons why we need collaborators, to push our work to its best.

Above all, it’s enjoyable; but not exactly a read-through book. I haven’t even started on all the analyses of the famous lyricists he’s included.

As for ‘leave you humming the final bars of Merrily We Roll Along, while eagerly anticipating the next volume’–I was humming them before I even started that last chapter of Finishing the Hat.

I think I’ll start the next volume on a Sunday.

Book Review | Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim. 'It's magnificent…I learnt so much, not just about the shows…' but about writing. #Sondheim Share on X
photo from @SondheimSociety twitterfeed

Book Review | Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim
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3 thoughts on “Book Review | Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim

  • 15 January, 2022 at 3:55 pm

    Fantastic! It’s the sort of book I’d never have thought about getting or reading, but I, too, have a fondness for musical theater, and know a lot of his work. I would certainly also like to hear more about what you learned and thought about the writing process—a perfectly legit reason to do another post on this book!

    • 15 January, 2022 at 4:17 pm

      I was going to say … but can I remember it? In which case, i haven’t learnt it yet. And to do a post on it would be the perfect way of getting it into my brain 🙂
      Great idea, thanks, Rebecca!

  • 19 January, 2022 at 2:11 pm

    Very interesting, Jemima. Very high praise for the book. KL <3

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