The Art of Making Art
With Stephen Sondheim’s second collection of his lyrics, the hyper-articulate, neurotic, modernist master Broadway songwriter takes a curtain call
Yet Sondheim is oddly disparaging of lyric-writing as a craft and defensive about collecting his own work in a book. His comments on his lyrics may interest the reader, he wrote in Finishing the Hat, if only because “reading about how someone else practices a craft, no matter how individual or arcane—designing roller coasters, managing hedge funds, harvesting salt,” can be “enlightening.” This sounds like modesty, but it becomes clear that it is really the expression of a much greater pride—pride in his music, and in the shows that are the end product of music and lyrics. Juggling words is a skill, Sondheim implies, but creating musicals is an art, and he wants to be considered as an artist. Indeed, he writes in Look, I Made a Hat, he is finally uninterested in critical praise or awards. “The only meaningful recognition’s recognition by your peers or, more accurately, people you consider your peers. … An artist’s peers are other artists.”
This is a strange notion, when you think about it, coming from someone who has spent his life in show business. But Sondheim’s elevation of the musical from a popular, profit-making entertainment into an elite art form is the kind of transformation familiar from the history of other arts—for instance, the novel. In a sense, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat can be seen as the Broadway equivalent of what Henry James undertook in the prefaces to the New York Edition of his novels—a theoretical defense of an artistic revolution.
James, too, inherited a genre that was formless, spontaneous, often ludicrous, and immensely popular—the novel of Dickens and Melville, which he disparaged as a “loose, baggy monster.” In his own work, James self-consciously elevated the novel into a serious artistic genre, in which every element—perspective, theme, character, dialogue—was designed to serve a single authorial goal. His enormous success in this task made James the first modernist novelist and an idol to generations of writers and readers.
It also made him, for much of his career, a very unpopular novelist. By refusing to deliver the familiar pleasures of the novel, James forfeited the kind of popularity Dickens enjoyed. Worse, to many ill-disposed critics down to our own time, James was an elitist villain—the man who made the novel a sterile, mannered art, cutting it off from its former audience.
The parallels to Sondheim are striking at every point. Sondheim has been undeniably successful, winning not just awards but wealth, fame, and sizable audiences. Yet none of the shows he composed has been a smash hit on the scale of A Chorus Line or Phantom of the Opera—a show for which he has predictable disdain. (One of the revelations of Secrest’s biography is that some Sondheim shows ran for hundreds of performances and still ended up losing some or all of their investors’ money.) Nor have individual songs he composed entered the common musical culture the way that the songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein or the Gershwins did generations before. Only “Send in the Clowns,” from A Little Night Music, can be considered a standard.
“My kind of work,” Sondheim has said, “is caviar to the general. It’s not that it’s too good for people; it’s just that it’s too unexpected to sustain itself very firmly in the commercial theater.” But of course, “caviar to the general” means exactly that it is “too good for people,” and reading Sondheim’s lyrics, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is just what he believes. This impression comes across most clearly in the many short essays he devotes to the work of earlier lyricists—Noël Coward, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, and other writers of the golden age of Broadway musicals.
All these lyricists produced work that is more popular and beloved than Sondheim’s, and all of them, he insists, were shoddy craftsmen and/or rank sentimentalists. “There’s a fervent lack of surprise in Hammerstein’s thoughts, made manifest by his need to spell things out with plodding insistence,” runs a typical comment. Sondheim is outraged by these lyricists’ leniency with themselves and by their willing acceptance of convention. Even the institution of the chorus offends his sense of realism: After all, “they all sing the same lyric; that is to say, they apparently all have the same thought at the same time. … What about the picnickers in Carousel? Did every one of them have a real nice clambake? Wasn’t there anyone who had indigestion or a rotten time?” Sondheim asks.
Similarly, he objects to the use of “trunk songs”—old songs that a composer keeps in his trunk in order to recycle in future shows. If the music and lyrics of a show must be a direct outgrowth of its theme, such recycling is manifestly unacceptable: “The composers from the Golden Age were writing generic shows which had neither stylistic conceptions nor demands of character and could therefore accommodate any and every kind of song in the recesses of their trunks. I had relentlessly made it a point of pride not to recycle songs.”
Yet when Sondheim goes on to give examples of such trunk songs, they include Jule Styne’s music for “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (from Gypsy) and Leonard Bernstein’s for “America” and “Somewhere” (from West Side Story). Musically and dramatically, it would be impossible to tell that these songs were taken from the trunk; they fit their shows perfectly and have even become some of their best-known numbers. Here, as so often in reading Sondheim’s lyrics, the reader can sense the basic tension, even the paradox, in his idea of a modernist musical. After all, the musical is essentially a hybrid, collaborative, and popular form. The attempt to make it more like a novel or poem, reflecting the worldview of a single artistic intelligence, runs against the concrete conditions of its production.
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