The Arty Semite

Stephen Sondheim’s Little Night Kvetching

By Benjamin Ivry

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Culminating over a year of 80th birthday commemorations, the Broadway lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim recently had a Manhattan theater named after him.

Yet a self-annotated volume of his lyrics due out October 29 from Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, “Finishing the Hat,” still seethes with resentment. The book’s subtitle, “Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes,” should have the words “grudges” and “whines” printed in boldface capitals.

Reviews from decades ago still gall Sondheim, who attacks such now-venerable critics as Robert Brustein (dismissed as “condescending”) and Arlene Croce, with the latter accused of displaying “willful bitchery or natural stupidity” in a review of “Follies” (1971). Even more surprising is Sondheim’s contempt for past great lyricists, such as Ira Gershwin, “too often convoluted and [Lorenz] Hart too often sloppy.” Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics, according to Sondheim, “lack energy and flavor and passion.”

Claiming to favor simplicity and hate fanciness, Sondheim repeats an inexactly translated statement by a German Jewish poet: “In the words of Else Lasker-Schüler,” Sondheim writes, “‘A true poet does not say ‘azure,’ a true poet says ‘blue.’” In a letter to the half-Jewish German dramatist Carl Zuckmayer, Lasker-Schüler (1869 –1945) actually stated: “Azure? A poet writes ‘blue’!” (“Azur? Ein Dichter schreibt ‘Blau’!”)

Even without the tacked-on pompous formulation about a “true poet,” Lasker-Schüler’s informal edict ignores Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem “L’Azur” (Azure) which concludes: “I am haunted. Azure! Azure! Azure! Azure!” (Je suis hanté. L’Azur ! l’Azur ! l’Azur ! l’Azur !) With a type of sloppiness for which he reproaches Hart, Sondheim may have found this Lasker-Schüler paraphrase in a 1998 New York Times Book Review article by California-born novelist Leslie Epstein, (Epstein repeated the same formulation in the May 2010 issue of Writer’s Digest Magazine.)

Sondheim is cogent on the genesis of his own works, but not as a guide to others’ creations. He claims hyperbolically that Oscar Hammerstein’s “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’” sounds as “profoundly simple… as something by Robert Frost.” Mark Eden Horowitz’s “Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions,” the second edition of which appeared on September 28 from The Scarecrow Press, is a more reliable guide to the composer’s influences than “Finishing the Hat,” which asserts bafflingly that “Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ is more interesting than Verdi’s,” and confesses that Sondheim’s favorite example of the musical form of theme and variations is Rachmaninoff’s syrupy “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”

Watch Liberace playing Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” with appropriate buffoonery.


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