Paul Simon has published a review of Stephen Sondheim’s new collection of lyrics and stories, Finishing the Hat, in the New York Times. The Times reveals, in its quiet way, the title of Simon’s next album and its expected arrival.
Some notes of interest from the captivating review:
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.
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.”
“Company,” one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, is often cited as another example of his cerebral, cold writing. The plot is a bitter examination of the “joy” of marriage and the existential loneliness of its unmarried protagonist, Bobby. Some have speculated that Bobby is an autobiographical stand-in for Sondheim, although he dismisses this as the trap of attributing the character of the art to the character of the artist. It’s harder to read autobiography into the words of a composer who writes for theater than it is for a pop music counterpart. A song from “the heart” of a character has to be truthful, but if it isn’t, it’s not the author’s lie — it’s the character’s. But if a pop singer or songwriter writes a love song, a song of regret or even a bit of inscrutable doggerel like “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” it’s autobiography. The lyricist in a musical is writing the art of the character. Both are pathways to a truth, but there is a profound difference in process.
The Times’ editors promote the review here:
In his youth, Simon said in an e-mail, he basically listened only to R & B, doo-wop and rockabilly. “The first musical I remember seeing was a show called ‘Fanny,’ whose title deeply embarrassed me. I don’t remember anything else about it. I also saw ‘Bye Bye Birdie,’ which I felt was condescending toward my age group.” A dozen years ago, Simon’s own musical, “The Capeman,” opened on Broadway, and in August the Public Theater staged it at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. “The summer ‘Capeman’ revival at the Delacorte was a totally enjoyable experience,” he said. “Of course, the whole atmosphere at the Public was so much more relaxed and assured than the original, which had complicated artistic differences and a ‘controversial’ subject matter. Attitudes have changed a lot since 1998.”