“God is in the details” is printed among stars and staves on the endpapers of part one of Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954–1981, with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes—to be continued, hang on and hope—and as a working principle, rather than an axiom, gets more than a single mention in its 445 multicolumnar pages. The crucial allusion, though, is in a short note to “Losing My Mind,” a song that occurs towards the end of 1971′s Follies (disallowing the rewrites and alt. versions that follow it in this compendium). Wwword is based in New York City, and I’m guessing that anyone reading a Manhattanite site knows the notion—it’s more tenuous than a plot—of Follies: a last reunion for Ziegfield-style performers before the demolition of the Broadway theater where long ago they were the toasts of the town. A chance, as the script has it, to reminisce, and “lie to ourselves a little.” Sally was a showgirl who married, not her beau of 1942, Ben—now grown too wealthy for his showgirl wife, Phyllis, to divorce—but Buddy Plummer, traveling salesman. All in the name.
Before this, her big number, Sally has already announced herself (though that’s far too bold a verb for the self-effacement of “Don’t Look at Me”); she’s held a line in the quartet “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs”: and she’s taken her turn at dissimulating in a solo, “In Buddy’s Eyes.” The latter was formerly—many of these numbers have had more incarnations than the veteran’s anthem “I’m Still Here”—a Ben-and-Sally exchange of untruths, “Pleasant Little Kingdom”: her domain was full of “merry little chores/And on Fridays there’s a vassal /To help with the floors”; in his realm, courtesy Phyllis, “at any given moment/The ashtrays are clean”. Instead, Sondheim has supplied both with solos. In hers, Sally justifies her choice—her life is limited, but with the compensation that “In Buddy’s eyes, I’m young, I’m beautiful … I can’t get older … I won’t get older/Nothing dies.” (Buddy has a current mistress and is a serial self-loather.) She then reveals her adoration of Ben in her part of “Too Many Mornings,” in which Ben regrets that he never married her; but as Sondheim writes, dryly —please infer dry as adjective or adverb each time his name appears—Ben is not duetting with Sally in 1971, but serenading the Sally of 1941.
George or Dorothy?
There follow others’ wrynesses—infer wry along with dry throughout, would ya?—and Sally’s solo. In Sondheim’s notes, this was “less an homage to, than a theft of, Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love,’” the rhymes and harmonies “near-stenciled.”
Not so. Although the musical phrasing of “Losing My Mind,” a clear break at the end of each line of lyric, has a paced build uncommon for Sondheim, it doesn’t sound like anybody else. If the song doesn’t pay as much respect as he claims to George Gershwin, it awards none at all to his brother Ira. Sondheim evaluates lyricists throughout—in piecettes so niched to their enclosing boxes I’ll bet you a ticket to the next Donmar Warehouse Sondheim revival that he counted in their contents to the last letter—and he thinks Ira tried too hard, “straining for lapidary brilliance” to match his brother’s musical genius. “Losing My Mind” is written instead in the manner of Dorothy Fields, who—in the smaller New York of Sondheim’s youth—was his honorary Aunt Dorothy. That he still venerates Dot, albeit with qualifications, you can tell from the subhead on her enclosure: “Wry and Dry.” (Oh my: that’s to die for.)
Fields came into the business through Tin Pan Alley, where the “voice” of a song was that of the lyricist, and her approach was colloquial, conversational. I’d call it semi-documentary— her “Gee, I love to see you looking swell, baby/ Diamond bracelets Woolworth doesn’t sell, baby” in “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” is a montage of newsreels, as is, deep into the Depression, her “Nothing’s impossible I have found,/ For when my chin is on the ground,/ I pick myself up, / Dust myself off, / Start all over again.” She kept up with the march of the times, too, for character with vernacular jokes nothing beats her hookers’ aspirant “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” from Sweet Charity (1966). She went on listening: you can hear the audio in her words.
Losing her mind
So “Losing My Mind” is very friendly with Dorothy. It couldn’t be plainer: who could ask for anything less. “The sun comes up,/ I think about you./ The coffee cup,/ I think about you.” Hear those full stops, after eight words, after seven, the domestic setting, the repetition. This sounds like the truth at last, a confession on the couch. Then the musical, and verbal, build-up begins:
Doing every little chore,
The thought of you stays bright.
Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor,
Not going left,
Not going right.
A precise description of a specific mental state, the daydreams of what wasn’t quite, won’t be, certainly shouldn’t be, that get us through what must be: the gap between there and then, here and now, that immobilizes, then rigidifies: Sally’s entranced with Ben, with the other life that might have been but for a choice that wasn’t made with full disclosures on all sides in 1942. “I dim the lights / And think about you”—one thought, no comma, so the nostalgia was provoked by the action, perhaps accidentally? Then “Spend sleepless nights / To think about you.” No comma again; but also “to” not “and.” A preposition, not a conjunction, not accidental, for sure. Sally summons up Ben, her familiar, a daimon not a demon.
Sondheim calls that “a nice example of the subtle powers of the English language.” The refrain is distressed demotic: “It’s like I’m losing my mind”: Sally can’t make a definite statement about herself. The song was written before spoken English borrowed (perhaps from Australia) the rising notes that lift a statement into a question, but there were always ways—“it’s like”—of shirking responsibility for what was being said. In the last repeat Sally rephrases it as a question: “Or am I losing my mind?” to allow the music a diminuendo after the crescendo on “You said you loved me,/ Or were you just being kind?”—which is both accusation and question.
There was a precise theatrical allusion in the original Broadway staging, when Dorothy Collins as Sally—bubbly, many-petticoated Sally—got to belt it as a lamé-ed, spotlit torch singer, the song genre that honours female loss. (Ira Gershwin’s words “The winds grow colder /And suddenly you’re older” for Harold Arlen’s “The Man That Got Away” are Fieldsian torch song—just the facts, ma’am: so he could do it if he wanted to.) Yet Barbara Cook in the 1985 concert Follies, and in cabaret, never torched the premises: her Sally addressed herself, rather than the audience, perhaps saying goodbye to the illusion, perhaps realising that it had been an illusion, and self-induced at that. In what plot there is, Phyllis takes Ben home after his suave-casual Fred Astaire number falters and breaks down; Sally regains her mind and leaves with Buddy, for a future without illusion; the ghosts of their younger, still hopeful, selves inhabit the stage. Some “to.”
What’s in a (two-letter) word?
Now that might seem a lot to extract from a t and an o, but then, as with all superlative craftsmanship—and Sondheim’s lyrics are wrought: so is his music, of course, but less explicably—there’s far more technical skill and application in there than we consciously appreciate, many more absorbed hours “finishing the hat” with the tools, dictionary, thesaurus—or the mates from London able to supply lewd Cockney synonyms for the beggarwoman soliciting in Sweeney Todd, so that Sondheim’s natty but not spot-on “fish me squiff” could be rendered, properly improperly, as “split me muff.” (His Cockney pal didn’t help him over a posh address in the same show, though: Sondheim couldn’t locate a destination that combined an upward inflection on its third syllable with a city feature that Americans would be able to place in class, so road, square, mews wouldn’t do: he invented “Kearney’s Lane,” which doesn’t sound suitable accommodation for a judge—more a dodgy den for Irish brickmakers around Notting Hill. It displaces the delicacy of the lovely “Ah, Miss.”)
For a perfect example of Sondheim’s inspiration and exertion, and always of deletion—“Less Is more” is right up there with “God is in the details”—there’s the playwright John Weidman’s history of a Tokyo Bay port in the 15 years after Commodore Matthew Perry’s ships forced Japan open to the world. In Pacific Overtures, part of this is read as terse dispatches, while the transformation of Nippon—the inconsequential, yet very consequential indeed, physical changes, and the mighty shift in national and personal identities—is caught in the “lyrical scrapbook” of images Sondheim pasted together in “A Bowler Hat”: milk in tea, pocket watch, monocle, cutaway coat. It lasts a page, a few minutes, and summarizes the period that led to Meiji Japan better than any history I’ve read; although Pacific Overtures, written in 1976 when Japan was on the upsurge, probably now needs a revised finale based on a more becalmed word than “Next,” Sondheim’s “onomatopoeic blast” that terminates the buoyant phrases of his floating kingdom, many of their nouns—planting, weaving, sliding, painting—adapted from light, deft verbs.
The words to the music
Does it sound as if I’ve gone word by word through every song? So I have, as an aide-mémoire (there’s just some alternates in there that I didn’t know by heart). I was raised in a family of extended chronology and varied literacy, with a single, common, oral culture: the words to the music. Everything. Charles Wesley’s hymns, those exemplars of clarity, and the cynical parodies soldiers twisted from them in 20th-century wars. The miniature dramas of the music hall, which had a more Dickensian narrative than vaudeville: vaudeville begat Sondheim’s mode for the words of Gypsy, frantic but not serious, whereas Sweeney Todd takes its rumbled musical cue from the movie scores of Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann, and its blithe, brutal vocals from music hall’s “Villikins and His Dinah.”
We knew show numbers from The Merry Widow and The Arcadians through to the razzle of late Broadway, and the songbooks of every lyricist whom Sondheim criticizes—although we didn’t think of them as songbooks, or even as having been written by nominated persons—W.S. Gilbert, Noel Coward, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Alan Jay Lerner came to us almost as anon as folksong. It only mattered that besides a music (not necessarily a “hummable melodee”) that could be vocalized unaccompanied over the kitchen sink, the song had actual ideas set in language at least as shrewd as our own saline vernacular, and for preference sharper. That it had been crafted, each tempered word inlaid in place.
We explored the world, the lives we hadn’t, or hadn’t yet, had through lyrics: a foretaste of sad experience in “Autumn Leaves”; the promise of egalitarian courtship in Fred and Ginger’s competitive duets, as scripted by Fields, Berlin, yep, even Ira Gershwin (I must initially have heard of Christopher Columbus through “They All Laughed”); the potential for youth in the first Sondheim I found, “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, for which he provided not only the words, but the driving line, halfway to the tune. I was an infant Brit, I didn’t know what a “block” meant (off with his head?), I didn’t get the Jets’ by-then-vintage Beat lingo or the politics of Latino immigration in “America,” the romantic burble of “Tonight” was for my adult sister (the sole tribe member who didn’t hark to words, couldn’t hear any difference between “If I Loved You” and “It Never Entered My Mind”). But “The air/ Is humming,/ And something great is coming!” whirred with an internal dynamo a child could understand. This one did. Amazing to read in his footnote that, a long lifetime later, Sondheim absolves it of phony poetry.
He words me
Oh, I could chatter on about his edited, rationed anecdotes, and his balanced evaluation of each show up to and including the equivocal Merrily We Roll Along—which I love. (Gee, so that was a minority opinion when it was new?) I could sympathize with his, er, dry and wry description of academic hubris in Yale’s aquatic follies, The Frogs, but that’s not as riveting as his addition, to Aristophanes’ amphibian exclamations “Brek-kek-kek-kek-kek etc, Ko-ax, ko-ax”, of Kermit’s “Rib-et Rib-et.” He words me, girls, he words me. Almost every word a gem, and even those he now winces at chosen and assembled with passionate care, including that wrongful “Kearney’s Lane.” When do we get Vol. Two?
Veronica Horwell writes for the older forms of media—newspapers, magazines, theater—in London, Oxford and, once in a blue moon, Paris. She can sing all the words to all the parts in Sondheim’s favorite, “Someone in a Tree,” from Pacific Overtures, but you wouldn’t want to hear her do it.