One of the pleasures of reading a scrapbook is how the life story (in pictures, articles, etc.) is told in a non-linear way and makes you look as much as read. It’s no mistake then that Stephen Sondheim’s second and probably last scrapbook Look I Made a Hat (published unusually soon after his first scrapbook, Finishing the Hat) continues at exactly the place where that first book left off. By Sondheim’s own admission, the most prevalent knowledge writing both books has given him is that they’ve made him feel his age. He turns 82 in March and unlike most people who generally despair at forgetting names and faces of people, the thing that bothers Sondheim the most about the loss of memory is forgetting trivia:
Having to search my dwindling gray cells for who directed The Sound of Music upsets me a lot more than not recognizing the stranger who wanders up to me at a party and turns out to be someone I’ve known for thirty years and worked with half a dozen times. What’s dangerous is that not remembering makes you think about remembering, which inevitably draws you into the past.
After reading this book and its predecessor, it’s evident that along with a genius for writing words and music, Stephen Sondheim has a genius for remembering in painstaking detail the story of his own life. The subtle nuances of a particular memory are fully realized here with astonishing clarity and life is not just recalled as an outline of somebody’s story but remembered in such an exact way that everything he writes feels relived and not merely recalled.
I reviewed the first book on this website when it first came out and this second volume is, of course, more of the same fare and written in the same voice (he doesn’t get any more personal than someone getting socially drunk at a party). The rumors about Sondheim himself – what other people have to say about him – of course aren’t here, nor should a reader really expect them to be, except for the fact that they are such great anecdotes.
I call these books scrapbooks because that’s really what they are – in this case, comprised mostly of librettos of the shows Sondheim is famous for and various backstage stories, riffs on composers and lyricists (as he did in the first book), and, in this new book, a humorous little essay on the usefulness (or, more accurately, uselessness) of awards. Also included here (along with the scripts of Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, Assassins, Passion and, what eventually became a show called Road Show (and also Wise Guys and also Bounce), is the meticulous rundown of how Wise Guys eventually morphed into Road Show, as well as, for the first time, recollections on his contributions to film and television. Most people know that Sondheim wrote the score to Dick Tracy starring Madonna and Warren Beatty, but what people may not know is that he also wrote for the Topper television series (during which, because of “the monotony of writing the same thing with minor variations every week”, he started work on a musical version of the 1945 movie The Clock, starring Judy Garland. The musical never panned out).
One of the wonderful chapters in Look I Made a Hat is called“Beginnings” which Sondheim includes “for the sole purpose of encouraging anyone who wants to write lyrics”. Here he talks candidly about living in Hollywood and New York and lyrics from four musicals he wrote as assignments given to him by his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein (one of them being a musical of Mary Poppins, the series of books Sondheim had loved as a child). In this chapter, he also writes about his time as a student at Williams College and tells a wonderful story about meeting and playing some music for Cole Porter who had a second home within walking distance of the campus. And, finally the epilogue here is also full of the kind of information that any Sondheim aficionado will no doubt instantly commit to memory: he writes on a pad, lying down; he’ll fix the second act of Allegro, yet; and his last words, if he can manage last words, will be a quote from his own “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along: “There’s so much stuff to sing!”
Look, I Made a Hat
by Stephen Sondheim
Knopf Paperback, 9780307593412, 453pp November 2011