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Learning and Peaking

So. Your Humble Blogger got a brief look at Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. The thing that struck me was that—wait, I’ll go back a bit.

Stephen Sondheim has written something like twenty shows, depending on how you count. Hundreds of songs. Some of them are among the best things ever written for the theater. He is responsible for at least two major shifts in conceptualizing the musical theater in America: first with the plotless character study Company and then with the semi-operatic Sweeney Todd. Amazing, amazing stuff. Last year there was a whole series of concerts and events to celebrate the man, tied in to his eightieth birthday—New York Philharmonic at the Lincoln Center, the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, Roundabout at Studio 54, New York City Center, the Kennedy Center, BBC Proms. A Broadway theater was named after him. He is the Great Man of the American Musical Theeyater.

And yet, it has been more than 20 years since a new show of his opened to any significant acclaim. Oh, there are people who liked Assassins and Passion and even Bounce, but the general feeling is that he peaked in 1984, and that everything after about half an hour into the second act of Sunday in the Park with George is forgettable and irrelevant, or if it is relevant, it is relevant only because it was written by the guy who also wrote Gypsy and Follies and all those great shows. When I hear the man is working on a new show, my feeling is that it will be interesting, but I doubt it will be good. I don’t expect the older Stephen Sondheim to be able to write a great show.

Which means that when I read the anecdotes, grumbles and analysis in Finishing the Hat, I’m reading the opinions of the older Stephen Sondheim, the one who I don’t expect to write a great show. And when he opines about what makes a lyric good or bad, and what is disappointing about “I Feel Pretty” or “Comedy Tonight”, is that the insights of the genius, having had time to think, or is it the insights of guy who wrote Bounce?

Which led me to a general question, about how it is possible to know less about a topic over time, even as you learn more about it. I don’t just mean that Mr. Sondheim lost his touch in some way, that (like Duke Ellington) for some reason he just lost the ability to write great songs. I would liken that to an athlete who loses his touch, is a trifle slower, recovers a little less easily, gets a little less hangtime. That doesn’t mean he knows less about the game. There are plenty of athletes who become analysts, managers, scouts, coaches, whatever, who go on learning about the game after they can no longer execute that knowledge at the top level. No, I don’t think that (f’r’ex) Duane Kuiper knows less about the game than he did when he was playing. But… will he peak? Will the opinions and analyses of Duane Kuiper in 2030 be worth less than those he gave in 2010?

The canonical example, of course, is Joe Morgan, although one does have to wonder whether he ever really had the ability to analyze, as opposed to play, the game. I don’t know. Perhaps Stephen Sondheim never really had the ability to analyze, as opposed to write, lyrics. It seems unlikely—part of the job, it seems to me, is to analyze the stuff you are writing to see if it works. Mr. Sondheim probably has more well-known cut songs (that is, songs that were cut before opening, that became well-known amongst theater aficionados despite not appearing in the show or on the cast album, and in some cases despite never being recorded by anybody at all) than anyone in the century or so of the art form. One of the joys of Finishing the Hat is reading the words to all those cut songs, as well as reading some of the earlier versions of the songs that wound up in the shows, photocopies of typewritten pages with handwritten ideas over crossed-out rejections. And, of course, lyric-writing is such a cerebral activity and he is such a cerebral lyricist that I just assume that he’s a terrific analyst.

And yet, when he writes about Irving Berlin, or W.S. Gilbert, or Lorenz Hart, or Noel Coward, or about the young Stephen Sondheim, he utterly, utterly misses it. If I were giving advice to a songwriter, anyone who might write a song in any genre, it would be to spend some time thinking about the songs, but give this book a miss. I mean, unless you are a fan, which you ought to be. In which case, obviously, dig in.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.