Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim

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BBC Radio 4, 20-24 December 2010

This Book of the Week series of programmes focused on the life and work of Stephen Sondheim in a career lasting over half a century. Each episode was devoted to one or two of his greatest musicals – West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd. Sondheim himself was interviewed about each musical, but the material from the book Finishing the Hat – Sondheim’s own work – was read by Juliet Stevenson. This strategy rendered the programme curiously schizophrenic: whereas Sondheim’s reminiscences were expressed in colloquial terms, the book extracts were read formally, with much of the technical information about how to create a good lyric seeming like material for an academic lecture rather than a Book of the Week.

Nevertheless we learned a lot about Sondheim’s career; how Oscar Hammerstein told him to stop imitating others and find his own voice; and how Sondheim himself learned to write with specific actors in mind. “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music was especially created for Glynis Johns, who had a good voice but a limited range. The fact that it became Sondheim’s greatest hit was entirely due to chance. It was recorded by Judy Collins, then Sinatra, and took off thereafter.

In his early career Sondheim wrote lyrics only; this proved problematic when he worked with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story, or Jule Styne on Gypsy. Sondheim’s first book-and-lyrics musical was A Funny Thing Happened …; the experience taught him to listen to his directors, especially when a show needed to be rewritten before its Broadway tryout. The show’s biggest hit “Comedy Tonight,” was created after a calamitous New Haven run, when the cast and director demanded an opening number that could set the show’s overall tone.

Sondheim’s later career involved more ambitious experiments with the musical form. Company was a fundamentally plotless piece, concentrating more on character development rather than the book. A Little Night Music was through-sung, based on the Ingmar Bergman film Signs of a Summer Night. Originally Sondheim and director Hal Prince had wanted to do a musical based on the Anouilh play that formed the basis for Christopher Fry’s West End hit Ring Round the Moon. Anouilh’s agent refused to give the rights, so Sondheim turned to one of his favourite films as an original source. Sweeney Todd was based on Christopher Bond’s stage melodrama, first performed at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East; in Sondheim’s version the composed tried to use music to convey emotions as much as the lyrics. The musical received a lukewarm response, particularly in the West End, where audiences objected to a serious musical written by an American about a notorious Victorian British criminal. Since its premiere in 1979 Sweeney Todd has established itself as a major work, due in no small part to Declan Donnellan’s revival at the Royal National Theatre over a decade later. Sondheim himself admitted that it was his homage to London.

The programmes gave a fascinating insight into the complexities of producing a stage musical, which may involve individual talents but is an essentially collaborative effort that goes through several stages, its form and content continually changing. The producer was Emma Harding.