Thursday, November 11, 2010

Footlights and Footnotes: Sondheim's 'Finishing the Hat'

Toward the end of his 1997 book, “The Footnote,” the historian Anthony Grafton wrote:

Sadly, the footnote’s rise to the status of a standard scholarly tool has been accompanied — in many cases — by its stylistic decline to a list of highly abbreviated archival citations. … Footnotes flourished most brightly in the 18th century, when they served to comment ironically on the narrative in the text as well as to support its veracity. In the 19th century, they lost the prominent role of the tragic chorus. Like so many Carmens, they found themselves reduced to laborers and confined to a vast, dirty factory. What began as art became, inevitably, routine.

There’s nothing routine about the footnotes in Stephen Sondheim’s new book, “Finishing the Hat,” which are as enjoyable and enlightening as the text itself. Here’s an early one:

Despite his influence on my life, Oscar Hammerstein II is not my idol. For those who know that he was an artistic father to me as well as a personal substitute for a real one during my teen years, this disapproving heresy, and others to follow, may come as something of a seismic shock. But the truth is that in Hammerstein’s shows, for all their revolutionary impact, the characters are not much more than collections of characteristics — verbal tics and quirks, like Southern accents or bad grammar, which individualize a character only the way a black hat signifies a villain — and his lyrics reflect that naïveté. Refining his innovations was left to my generation, and a lot of us went at it with a will. Songwriters like Kander and Ebb, Bock and Harnick, Strouse and Adams — we all explored the new territory with playwrights who happily accepted the notion that musicals could be more than constructs of block comedy scenes and novelty songs leavened by the occasional ballad, or lightly cynical cartoon shows like “Of Thee I Sing” and “Pal Joey.” Thus “Cabaret,” “She Loves Me,” “West Side Story,” etc.

By the way, in his review of “Finishing the Hat,” Paul Simon says: “A scene for ‘Gypsy’ originally meant to be choreographed by Jerome Robbins had to be redone when Robbins said he didn’t have time to do it balletically. The plot information would have to come in the form of a song.” Sondheim and Robbins, Simon adds, “worked for three uninterrupted hours and produced what would become the showstopper ‘Rose’s Turn.’” That showstopper, of course, was written for the doyenne of musical comedies. As Sondheim writes, “How Jerry intended to use Ethel Merman in a ballet is something we’ll never know, I’m sorry to say.”

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