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Steven Sondheim's Look, I Made a Hat

In the preface to the second volume of his anthology of lyrics, Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) With Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany, Stephen Sondheim recites an old joke regarding the encyclopedic scale of his ambitions, and why he chose to split the collection at the halfway point of his career in 1981: Quips Sondheim on what someone might say about a single volume encompassing his entire career: "I couldn't put it down — but then I couldn't pick it up."

Volume 2, an erudite and entertaining, 453-page hardback coffee-table opus, includes a compendium of lyrics and related commentary pertaining to stage musicals from Sunday in the Park With George through Road Show, as well as the movies Dick Tracy, The Seven Percent Solution, The Birdcage and Water Under the Bridge. It also includes TV musicals, including Evening Primrose and the unproduced Do You Hear a Waltz?

The lyrics themselves are grist for any poet — the simplicity, brevity, wit and clarity that conforms to prosaic mantras oft-stated in the book: "Less is more," "Content dictates form" and "God is in the details."

The book's sizzle comes from Sondheim's commentaries and anecdotes. His digression on critics ("Critics and Their Uses"), on what distinguishes critics (who dissect ideas and intentions) from reviewers (slogging in deadline-generated ignorance to report an event), and on the use and uselessness of each, have been bouncing around the blogosphere, met with various degrees of indignation when his point is actually benign: He ends up saying that to rely on the opinions of strangers, whose purpose is to issue a consumer report, probably isn't helpful for artists, though it may be helpful in the marketplace. Even insipid and ignorant chatter is better than silence when it comes to letting people know that the theater still exists.

He adds that the quality of criticism has been degraded by the quantity and democratization of opinion by websites, but at least there's evidence of enthusiastic discussion. A lyric from the 1998 workshop production of Road Show (then called Wise Guys) sums it up: "Journalists/What would we do without journalists? What can we do about journalists? Gotta greet them with a grin. ... I never know despair/Or doubt or gloom/If I can only look/Around the room/And see a journalist/And give him something to misquote."

Of course this would simply be antiquated prattle, were it not for the diminishing attention spans to which Sondheim refers, which cut into the abilities of both critics and artists to build arguments and ideas that take time and space. The complaint is not so much against reviewers (whom he refers to as journalists) but against the very culture that handcuffs them. For example, he recalls that as a child, sitting in the upper rafters of an old Broadway house, listening to a musical without microphones, gazing down at the actors' faces — "the size of a dime" — having to strain to listen to their voices was an exercise in the kind of concentration that has largely evaporated from our times.

Sondheim concedes that there are a few critics he admires — when they write about others — as much as he admires peers who understand his ambitions and his intentions in creating a work of art.

Sondheim has almost no use for awards, he says — lifetime achievement awards feel like another nail in the coffin, whereas competitive awards raise the old conundrum of comparing potatoes with oranges, judged by people who are often not experts in the field. The cash can be helpful, he adds, if awards come with cash, but the esteem of winning and the bitterness of losing are all short-lived and ultimately irrelevant to the business of creating a poem attached to a song. —Steven Leigh Morris

LOOK, I MADE A HAT: COLLECTED LYRICS (1981–2011) WITH ATTENDANT COMMENTS, AMPLIFICATIONS, DOGMAS, HARANGUES, DIGRESSIONS, ANECDOTES AND MISCELLANY (Knopf). 483 pages


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