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John H. McWhorter

The Sondheim Reckoning

A composer speaks his mind.

Not so long ago, Stephen Sondheim was considered a renegade composer on Broadway, his work regularly derided as unmelodic, chilly, and sour. I know a few show music fans, of a certain age and then some, who have never gotten past that verdict—but it is generally considered retrograde today. It would be stretching it to designate Sondheim mainstream, but his work is now embraced by Hollywood (including a successful Sweeney Todd film in 2008); there is now a groaning bookshelf of books about him and his work; and in the eight years I have lived in New York, there have been full-scale productions of eight of his eleven major works.

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes is the first of two volumes gathering all of Sondheim's lyrics including the "trunk songs," the ones written for but not used in shows as they took shape. The format includes extensive commentary by Sondheim himself, and he turns out to be a marvelous writer—lapidary, witty, and lucidly instructive: he intends the book not as a celebration of his work per se, along the lines of collections like Ira Gershwin's Lyrics on Several Occasions, but as a primer on the craft of lyric-writing.

A perfect lesson, for instance, is his analysis of the initial line in Sweeney Todd: "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd." The word attend sounds an appropriately archaic note for a tale about Victorian England; the word tale flags that the narrative will be fabulistic rather than literal; the alliteration of the t's feels, in its formality, vaguely sinister, as is this story of a homicidal barber. All of that in six words—this kind of thing is why some of us know almost every lyric the man has ever written by heart.

Yet what stands out most about the book is the heresies promised in the subtitle. Sondheim, so often cast as the underdog, turns out to be rather pitilessly dismissive of the work of his predecessors. ...

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