Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

'Look, I Made a Hat': Sondheim takes readers backstage on Broadway

Look, I Made a Hat is the second volume of Stephen Sondheim's show-by-show, song-by-song compendium of his life in the American musical theater.

Look, I Made A Hat

Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany

By Stephen Sondheim

Alfred A. Knopf. 453 pp. $45

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Lewis Whittington

Look, I Made a Hat is the second volume of Stephen Sondheim's show-by-show, song-by-song compendium of his life in the American musical theater.

It comes out just a year after his Finishing the Hat, which was hailed not only for its candor in describing the art of writing lyrics, but also as a wily backstage account of Sondheim's spectacular career.

Just the story of how Sondheim explains to Ethel Merman the meltdown song "Rose's Turn" in Gypsy is worth that book's purchase price.

Finishing the Hat covered Sondheim's seminal period as New York's preeminent Broadway baby, tracking his biggest artistic and commercial successes, including Company, Follies, and Sweeney Todd.

Look, I Made a Hat surveys Sondheim's output from 1981, considered by many the start of a decline for the composer as the Broadway landscape became a magnet for Disney-ized spectacles, British pop operettas, and star-driven jukebox musicals.

Indeed, in many ways this book is more interesting, given Sondheim's creative impulses for shows that were less commercially viable, after he had enjoyed so much success.

Look picks up with Sunday in the Park With George, about artist Georges Seurat and the creative process. Snubbed by the Tonys, Sunday snagged a Pulitzer Prize and eventually came to be regarded as one of Sondheim's masterworks.

With Into the Woods, Sondheim created a dark allegorical world with characters from beloved fairy tales. Next, he took on an even darker project with Assassins, a musical about John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, and a rogues gallery of successful and would-be killers of presidents.

Who else but Sondheim could write a sardonic and touching love duet between Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and John Hinckley - she singing about Charlie Manson, he crooning to Jodie Foster? Sondheim writes that of all his musicals, Assassins "comes closest to my expectations for it . . . the show is perfect. Immodest that may sound, but I'm ready to argue it with anybody."

The lyrics are the spine of the book and Sondheim's running commentary the meat. For other composers, this is a tutorial on the art of lyric-writing. Sondheim gamely reflects on his follies and excesses. His mentor Oscar Hammerstein III, he reminds, gave him the sage advice that a composer must "be brutal" with his own material. Sondheim doesn't seem to hedge as an objective self-archivist. He chronicles the jeering response Passion received when it opened in the early '90s. Audiences didn't warm to a period melodrama about a masochistic 18th-century Italian woman who stalks an officer until he gives in.

The longest section of the book, which covers his opus Road Show (renamed from Wise Guys, then Bounce), will prove grueling for all but his most avid fans. This show might lurch toward minted Sondheim, but it repeatedly slips on its own conventions, if not clamminess, with every bump in the road run over (and back again).

Look, I Made a Hat has more of a scrapbook look than the first volume did. There are curios. Original lyric sheets and handwritten notes from Sondheim are fascinating, but other items are obvious filler. The music he did for The Birdcage, for instance, is placed next to contact photos from the movie Dick Tracy on the facing page, which seems a haphazard arrangement. But his foray as libretto doctor for such failed projects as Illya Darling, starring Melina Mercouri and cashing in on her film persona from Never on Sunday, is vintage showbiz Sondheim.

Sondheim even addresses criticisms for his hard-boiled critiques of other composers, notably Noël Coward, and continues with technical appraisals of other lyricists in this volume. He also answers those who thought he should have been more forthcoming about his own life with the simple explanation that these books were never intended as his memoirs. We do find out that he doesn't like opera. He is full of barbed tact about critics (distinct from reviewers, he reminds): " . . . reviewers become desensitized, and atrophy sets in - the reviews lose whatever freshness they may have had when the reviewer first eagerly began; passion gets modified and bitchiness seeps in . . . ." I think there is a Sondheim song in there.

Sondheim turned 80 last year and has been receiving tributes everywhere and enjoying Broadway revivals of his older hits. Without doubt he's honed his skill as a theater raconteur for his sold-out concert-hall appearances with Frank Rich.

As for those intimate Sondheim memoirs, maybe with the hat tossed on some famous beds next time, with music swelling in the background, I can hear Mama Rose's advise to Gypsy: "Leave em' begging for more, then don't give it to them."