Look, I Made A Hat is the second volume of Stephen Sondheim’s sort of biography. He lists his adventures with writing the lyrics and songs for his works from 1981 to 2011 in this one. Having spent two days of Christmas listening to tapes (remember them?) of a friend of mine in several musicals, I moved on to my Sondheim CDs (and a couple of downloads) to listen alongside reading this volume. It makes for a very personal experience.
You can read my thoughts on the first volume here.
It is already 12 years since the end of this book’s listings. I saw Passion in the West End (with Michael Ball and Maria Friedman), missed Assassins because I had to choose between that and Kiss of the Spider Woman (possibly the most gripping musical ever), and saw the film of the making of Sunday in the Park but somehow wasn’t inspired to see it. I wish I had. With Into the Woods on Broadway, I fell asleep in the second half. I woke up for the best line ever – ‘My dear, I was born to be Charming, not Sincere’ (from Prince Charming, of course). I wondered what Mr Sondheim had left to dish the dirt on, since he only died in 2021, but he explains all in the last few pages.
Look, I Made A Hat
by Stephen Sondheim
After his acclaimed and best-selling Finishing the Hat (named one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2010), Stephen Sondheim returns with the second volume of his collected lyrics, Look, I Made a Hat, giving us another remarkable glimpse into the brilliant mind of this living legend, and his life’s work.
Picking up where he left off in Finishing the Hat, Sondheim gives us all the lyrics, along with excluded songs and early drafts, of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins and Passion. Here, too, is an in-depth look at the evolution of Wise Guys, which subsequently was transformed into Bounce and eventually became Road Show. Sondheim takes us through his contributions to both television and film, some of which may surprise you, and covers plenty of never-before-seen material from unproduced projects as well. There are abundant anecdotes about his many collaborations, and readers are treated to rare personal material in this volume, as Sondheim includes songs culled from commissions, parodies and personal special occasions over the years—such as a hilarious song for Leonard Bernstein’s seventieth birthday. As he did in the previous volume, Sondheim richly annotates his lyrics with invaluable advice on songwriting, discussions of theater history and the state of the industry today, and exacting dissections of his work, both the successes and the failures.
Filled with even more behind-the-scenes photographs and illustrations from Sondheim’s original manuscripts, Look, I Made a Hat is fascinating, devourable and essential reading for any fan of the theater or this great man’s work. (goodreads)
My ideas have changed on reading this book. I’m not really surprised. Why are these later musicals were fundamentally different from the ones that had gone before? The reason, as Mr Sondheim explains at the start, is the switch to working with a new writer. James Lapine had an off-Broadway, therefore more experimental, background. Sondheim had learned his craft with stalwarts of the classic Broadway business.
This gave me the ”lightbulb’ moment. I don’t like to be left thinking, well not for too long, about my entertainment. It’s the same, on the whole, for books. I read for enjoyment, to be swept into another world–to experience another world. I could go on to write an essay, particularly in relation to Passion. My reaction at the time, why I left the music on the shelf without playing for so long. And how I feel about it now. It might come out in an Insecure Writers post some time.
The format Mr Sondheim uses in the first volume is repeated in this one, but the depth of his commentary has changed. He comments about the feedback he received on the first volume, and goes on to address some of it. For instance, having left Critics strictly alone, he now presents a double-page on the subject. Which also give me pause for thought. Why do I review books? What right have I to review books?
There are only the four full-scale musicals to cover in this volume, plus the evolution of a fifth, but he continues on to look at other work he contributed to a wide range of projects. I found the lyrics difficult to read, because I did not have the music (even in my head) for them. It is a wealth of information, though. As always, Mr Sondheim provides suggestions and insights on craft that any writer, whether book, lyrics, or literary works of art, could take to heart.
So as with these later musicals, the later volume has left me thinking. Some of the thoughts are uncomfortable, because I don’t like questioning myself. I am not secure in my self-knowledge. I don’t stand up to my own scrutiny very well.
And if Mr Sondheim’s legacy is to make artistes and audiences think more, he would surely be proud of that.