Theatre in Wales

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The Practitioner as Critic

Theatre Writer Book

Finishing the Hat- Stephen Sondheim , Virgin Books , December 9, 2011
Theatre Writer Book by Finishing the Hat- Stephen Sondheim Theatre’s array of collaborators all make their appearance in “Finishing the Hat”. Producers are variously nervy and imperious. Choreographers emerge as monsters of insensitivity. The vain measure their billboard credits, just to check they are of the size that the contract stipulates. Critics are wrong-headed, under-informed, cloth-eared. Those are the sins of omission. “Musicals continue to be the only art form, popular or otherwise, that is criticised by illiterates.” Not so, I think, this side of the Atlantic. Nonetheless, the gracelessness of one Peter G Davis is remarkable. Sondheim is kind on the least lionised of musicals’ creators. The songwriter excels when in service of a good book. The dramatist is the most forgotten of creators.

Show business books are pitched on revelation. There are emotions a-plenty on display here, pride and dismay, irritation and hurt, but nothing histrionic. When not at the piano he writes on a couch, falling asleep when encountering difficulties “which is often.” He does not cook but reads cooking articles avidly. The challenges, surprisingly, for the cook are the same as for the songwriter: “timing, balance, form, surface versus substance, and all the rest of it.” For no particular reason “Anyone Can Whistle” has been interpreted as a piece of autobiography ever since its first singing at a benefit concert in 1973. That is just a muddle, “ascribing the character of the art to the character of the artist.”

As might be expected from a writer of the chiselled lyric the prose is precise and evocative. “The presence of music can not only supply what’s unwritten but resonate beyond it.” In praise of “Summertime” he makes the distinction between simple and simplistic. A work of art may be simple and dense but “there is a thin dividing line between economy of means and penury of ideas.” “Pacific Overtures” ends with a song “Next!” described as “an onomatopoeic blast if there ever was one.”

Sondheim as critic is the writer from the inside. Lyrics that mis-stress the usual habits of pronunciation, tormented syntax, rhyme that distorts meaning, adjectival padding, they are all detailed. He views with disfavour “flamboyant cleverness, ostentatious imagery, decorative elaboration and rhythmically repetitive lists like this one.” The term “through-composed” is used by critic and composer alike to dignify work that may have no compositional plan whatsoever.

He is eloquent in his enthusiasms. Robert Browning is marked as a personal hero. The lyrics of Frank Loesser and Dorothy Fields stand out for their “unforced conversational energy.” A line from Yip Harburg is quoted. “Even the rabbits/ Inhabit their habits/ On Sunday in Cicero Falls.”

Publishers are fighting back against the Kindle’s sheer sameness. “Finishing the Hat” is a handsome physical production, eleven inches high, eight inches wide. Illustrations are frequent. It is a pity that in the double page spreads the performers go uncredited. However lustrous a production team, not a ticket sells without the players. An illustration for “Sweeney Todd” misattributes the 1980 London production as the 1993 National Theatre revival. But “Finishing the Hat” brims with fascination, on the grind, the dismay, the occasional strokes of sheer serendipity, that accompany a life in art’s making. “Something dramatic, something erratic, something for everyone...” Very true.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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