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Stephen Sondheim has won seven Tonys, an Academy Award, seven Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors. His career has spanned more than half a century, his lyrics have become synonymous with musical theater and popular culture, and in Finishing the Hat—titled after perhaps his most autobiographical song, from Sunday in the Park with George—Sondheim has not only collected his lyrics for the first time, he is giving readers a rare personal look into his life as well as his remarkable productions.
Along with the lyrics for all of his musicals from 1954 to 1981—including West Side Story, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd—Sondheim treats us to never-before-published songs from each show, songs that were cut or discarded before seeing the light of day. He discusses his relationship with his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, and his collaborations with extraordinary talents such as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Ethel Merman, Richard Rodgers, Angela Lansbury, Harold Prince and a panoply of others. The anecdotes—filled with history, pointed observations and intimate details—transport us back to a time when theater was a major pillar of American culture. Best of all, Sondheim appraises his work and dissects his lyrics, as well as those of others, offering unparalleled insights into songwriting that will be studied by fans and aspiring songwriters for years to come.
Accompanying Sondheim’s sparkling writing are behind-the-scenes photographs from each production, along with handwritten music and lyrics from the songwriter’s personal collection.
Penetrating and surprising, poignant, funny and sometimes provocative, Finishing the Hat is not only an informative look at the art and craft of lyric writing, it is a history of the theater that belongs on the same literary shelf as Moss Hart’s Act One and Arthur Miller’s Timebends. It is also a book that will leave you humming the final bars of Merrily We Roll Along, while eagerly anticipating the next volume, which begins with the opening lines of Sunday in the Park with George.
“Finishing the Hat—a fascinating compilation of lyrics, commentary and anecdotes, covering the years 1954 to 1981—is essentially about process, the process of writing songs for theater. Performing acts of literary self-criticism can be a tricky business, akin to being one’s own dentist, but Sondheim’s analysis of his songs and those of others is both stinging and insightful. . . . After reading Finishing the Hat, I felt as if I had taken a master class in how to write a musical. A class given by the theater’s finest living songwriter. . . . Sondheim’s lyrics are deeper, more invisibly intricate and braver in their search for truth than those of any who have preceded him.” —Paul Simon, New York Times Book Review
“What’s so great about Finishing the Hat, the new book on songwriting by Stephen Sondheim, is implicit in its title. This self-portrait of the artist as an obsessive lyricist is about a dynamic, unending process; it’s about finishing, not having finished. And the mental energy this process emanates is enough to give a reader a satisfying case of brain burn. . . . If you’re a fan of the genre, how can you not feel privileged to eavesdrop on his dialogue with his own words? . . . It brims with vibrant reminiscence and a love of craft.” —Ben Brantley, The New York Times
"Finishing the Hat is a show stopper! If you love Stephen Sondheim, hate him, or never even heard of him, you'll still have a great ride—so take it! This book is filled with humor, controversy, stories about talented and glamorous people and, above all, life. And his lyrics! Everything you've ever wanted to know—about anything—is in those lyrics." —Phyllis Newman
“There is so much to be learned and appreciated from Finishing the Hat. It's filled with fascinating, entertaining, unique and compelling lessons from a man who encompasses the essence of what is truly great about American Musical Theatre.” —Michael Feinstein
“Just as Stephen Sondheim is, without dispute, THE master lyricist for the theater of our generation (not to mention his superb music!), he now has written THE book on the art and craft of lyric writing. It is a book that will enrich and entertain anyone with an interest in music and theater, either as a life’s work or a life’s pleasure. It is like no other writing on the subject. It is Sondheim.” —Alan & Marilyn Bergman
“Seeing my first Sondheim musical, Follies, I was like the farm girl brought to the Homes of Tomorrow exhibit; breathless, nose pressed to the glass. This book takes the glass away. It’s a thrill to experience these shows again with Steve as your guide. What a gift to the theatre this book is! For actors, it's a must. For lyricists, it a primer.” —Joanna Gleason
“The book is a masterpiece. There never has been and never will be one like it. It is about the grain of sand that produces the pearl and is indeed as honest and simple as that pearl. If you pay attention to this book you could learn how to write a song, though not a great song. That is forever mysterious as genius will always be. The main lesson is that this particular genius is dead practical. All the hocus pocus attached to art has no meaning in the mind of Sondheim. You must read it to see what does matter to him and you will marvel and read it again. And then again.” —Mike Nichols
“Stephen Sondheim’s book can be read for pleasure, information, wisdom, humor or inspiration; all of the pleasures I received. Or because it tells a few secrets about how genius works.” —Stanley Donen
“The greatest artist in the American musical theater.” —Frank Rich, The New York Times
“This book is far more than a brilliant insight into the art of writing for the musical theatre, it is also a unique and revelatory critique of many giants of the genre including the author himself. Forthright, perceptive and continually fascinating . . . Stephen Sondheim is rightly a living legend as a composer/lyricist but he is also a superb natural teacher and this book will be a timeless legacy. . . . The Gods of theatre salute you.” —Cameron Mackintosh
“Stephen is a writer you can readily bracket with Shakespeare and Chekhov. He should not to be thought of as a writer of musicals, but as a writer of theatre who understands all its possibilities, and who has extraordinary wit and insight into character. As we enter the 21st century, his status as one of the greats is absolutely secure.” —Trevor Nunn
“An eye-widening treasure chest of manuscript sketches of first ideas and second thoughts, rehearsal shots, backstage arguments, lessons and, intriguingly, glimpses of the man beneath the material.” —David Benedict, The Observer
“Sondheim is as erudite, wry and grand in his prose as he is in his lyrics, and I mean that as a compliment. It's refreshing to see someone of Sondheim's stature so willing to criticise and praise not only the writers who came before him but his own work ("wet" is the word he keeps using to describe his lyrics for West Side Story). Some of Sondheim's comments are so fabulously acerbic you could pop an olive in them and serve them as dry martinis.” —Chitra Ramaswamy, Scotland on Sunday
“For those of us who share Tom Lehrer’s view that Stephen Sondheim is, by a country mile, the greatest lyricist who ever lived, this is an essential book.” —Andrew McKie, Spectator
“He is, by universal acknowledgement, the man who revolutionised American musical theatre.” —Mick Brown, Saturday Telegraph Magazine
“. . . like having Shakespeare’s footnotes to his own work.” —Michael Billington, BBC Radio 3
“. . . every detail signifies, and no comment is superfluous in the rich survey, which ranges from West Side Story and Gypsy to Company, Follies, and Sondheim’s Grand Guignol masterwork, Sweeney Todd. Hat is both a dishily erudite memoir and an essential textbook for anyone in pursuit of theater literacy. A” —Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
“. . . both a feast of primary-source revelation and a riot of trouble-making heresy about such icons as Noel Coward. . . . The book is structured with a joyous sense of adventure, with sidebars and asides as conversational as they are encyclopedic. His analyses of rhymes deserve to guide generations.” —Linda Winer, Newsday