A Complaint About Sondheim

Congratulations to Stephen Sondheim on turning 80, a birthday that has been commemorated with celebrations in the theater and, now, the publication of Finishing the Hat (Knopf, $39.95), which collects his lyrics from 1954 to 1981.

That said, I wish he would stop dissing Lorenz Hart.

Sondheim's disappointment in and displeasure with Hart's lyrics aren't new. On the occasion of turning 70, in fact, he told Frank Rich in a New York Times Magazine piece that Hart -- whose collaborations with Richard Rodgers include such contributions to the American songbook as "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "It Never Entered My Mind" -- was guilty of "sloppy" and "lazy" writing. "As I've made clear," Sondheim notes in Finishing the Hat, "I am not much of a Hart fan." He describes how, preparing to give an informal lecture on lyricists, he considered making Hart's careless technique one of his talking points: Just to be sure he'd be on solid ground, he opened the Rodgers and Hart Songbook at random and "in every instance--I repeated the exercise three times--there was a wrong stress, a tortuous rhyme, a non sequitur or a meaning sacrificed to effect (or the writer's impatience)."

And yet if anything Hart demonstrates that taking the wrong path can lead to an effective, even unforgettable lyric.

For instance, Sondheim brings up these lines from "My Romance," from the show Jumbo:

My romance/ Doesn't need a castle rising/ In Spain/ Nor a dance/ To a constantly surprising/ Refrain.

Sondheim asks: "What refrain is constantly surprising?... If a refrain were constantly surprising, it would cease to be a refrain." That's quite true. Yet "constantly surprising" works quite well here, logically or not. It's not so inconceivable, is it--at least in the context of a Broadway-musical romance--that a refrain might strike lovers as magically fresh or revelatory every time it was repeated? It could be a spur to dance on and on. (And the soft closing "c" in "romance" and "dance" play off nicely against the hard opening "c" in "castle" and "constantly.") That simple oxymoronic phrase is charming.

Or consider a few lines from "I Wish I Were in Love Again," one of the finest songs from any Broadway score:

When love congeals/ It soon reveals/ The faint aroma of performing seals.

I'd like to have that inscribed on my urn. Is there anything in Sondheim as tangy? The emphases fall perfectly, and the whole thing is anchored by that wonderfully perverse "congeals." I guess it's imprecise to suggest that an aroma would be "revealed," let alone from something in the process of congealing. You could argue as well that "it" technically should refer to "congealed love," rather than love itself.

And by "faint aroma" is Hart jokingly implying the opposite, a strong odor? Are performing seals less or more hygenic than those found in nature? Do seals give off an odor? Why invoke performing seals if the listener can't be sure of Hart's olfactory intent?

And yet the images -- congealed love, performing seals--are so evocative, so startling, so vivid and visceral, we sense instantly the preposterous predicament of lovers trapped in now-embarrassing role-play as their passion cools. But, of course, the song is actually a playfully bittersweet ode to love, however imperfect, however punishing: "I miss the kisses and I miss the bites."

I don't know why Sondheim won't cut Hart a bit more slack, especially since he so gracefully, and precisely, acknowledges Hart's strengths: "There is a pervasive sweetness about him that comes through in even his most self-conscious work. He was verbally nimble, full of humor." (And Sondheim even invokes those performing seals in a reference to the traditional "book" musical championed by his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein.) But, alas, Hart was "a lazy craftsman."

Ah well.

Oh -- and to return to the topic of constantly surprising refrains: One of Sondheim's many interesting revelations is about 
 "Perpetual Anticipation," that wry and elegant little number from A Little Night Music. He originally wrote:

Perpetual anticipation is good for the soul,/ But it's bad for the skin

Harold Prince was so put off by the lyric, Sondheim reworked the refrain as:

Perpetual anticipation is good for the soul,/ But it's bad for the heart.

One of his loveliest lyrics. And yet if Sondheim had his way, the audience would have been thinking about psoriasis.

Thank you, all, for allowing me to dwell on this tiny topic.