"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

All Wet

My old man didn’t own any rock records. He had original cast recordings of Broadway shows. That was his thing, that’s what we heard around the house. My twin sister Sam really took to musicals. I liked some but never caught the bug.

I appreciate and admire the art form but I’m not much of a fan. Still, I read Paul Simon’s review of Stephen Sondheim’s new memoir (the first of two volumes), “Finishing the Hat,” with interest because I’m a nerd for guys talking shop.

This caught my eye:

“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. Nevertheless, he successfully avoids the traps of a self-inflated ego.

…Sondheim quotes the composer-lyricist Craig Carnelia: “True rhyming is a necessity in the theater, as a guide for the ear to know what it has just heard.” I have a similar thought regarding attention span and a listener’s need for time to digest a complicated line or visualize an unusual image. I try to leave a space after a difficult line — either silence or a lyrical cliché that gives the ear a chance to “catch up” with the song before the next thought arrives and the listener is lost.

Love this comment. It’s like knowing how to pace a laugh in a movie, how to let it breathe. Then, there’s this:

…I saw “West Side Story” when I was 16 years old, and I have two vivid memories of the show. One, I didn’t believe for a minute that the dancers were anything like the teenage hoods I knew from the street corner, and secondly, I was completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the song “Maria.” It was a perfect love song. Sondheim was less enamored with the lyric he wrote for Bernstein. He describes it as having a kind of “overall wetness” — “a wetness, I regret to say, which persists throughout all the romantic lyrics in the show.” Sondheim’s rule, taught to him by his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, is that the book and composer are better served by lyrics that are “plainer and flatter.” It is the music that is meant to lift words to the level of poetry.

Sondheim’s regret about “Maria” reminded me of my own reluctance to add a third verse to “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I thought of the song as a simple two-verse hymn, but our producer argued that the song wanted to be bigger and more dramatic. I reluctantly agreed and wrote the “Sail on silvergirl” verse there in the recording studio. I never felt it truly belonged. Audiences disagreed with both Sondheim and me. “Maria” is beloved, and “Sail on silvergirl” is the well-known and highly anticipated third verse of “Bridge.” Sometimes it’s good to be “wet.”


1 Matt Blankman   ~  Oct 29, 2010 1:47 pm

When reading the portion of the review you quoted in the first quote, I was thinking of Elvis Costello. Now, I love a lot of Costello's work and consider myself a fan, but sometimes I find his lyrics simply too dense for their own good. They're often so packed, I find myself exhausted trying to figure out a line while he's moved on to singing the next equally mind-bending one. Sometimes his skill exceeds his craft. Even Bob Dylan knows sometimes you do a moon/June/spoon rhyme just to keep the listener engaged.

I know this Sondheim book will be making the rounds in my family this holiday season, so hopefully I'll give it a read. Broadway Cast albums were a huge part of my childhood as well.

2 omarcoming   ~  Oct 29, 2010 3:42 pm

To borrow from Mr. Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George", BxB is Yankees and art.

3 The Hawk   ~  Oct 29, 2010 10:35 pm

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Hammerstein.

I don't quite see the connection Simon draws between "Maria" and his song, but I think his instinct was probably right in the first place. Sure people might like that last verse but who's to say it wouldn't have been better without?

4 bone thug n hominy   ~  Oct 30, 2010 12:44 am

Speaking of Paul Simon and broadway, do you have any thoughts about The Capeman?

5 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Oct 30, 2010 2:55 am

Good stuff, and "Bridge" just came on the iPod earlier today, too, with me signing along to "sail on silvergirl" . . .

Love the idea of the music lifting the plain lyrics to the level of poetry. So true. Having written music criticism, I've often run into the problem that the lyrics just don't ring the same bells when you quote them in print. Even had an editor challenge a lyrical quote asking why I thought the words were so clever or moving. The answer, of course, is the music.

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