Tripping off the Tongue?

I have been reading ‘Finish the Hat’ (Virgin Books, 2010) by Stephen Sondheim, a collection of his lyrics from 1954 to 1981, ‘with attendant Comments, Principals, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes’.  It’s a fascinating insight into the experience, thought process, expertise and humour of the man.

I’ll be honest, I’ve not read all of the lyrics, it’s the anecdotes and the ‘grudges’ and ‘heresies’ that I’ve lapped up; those, and the clear eyed analysis he has applied to his own early work.  He is not afraid to point out his own failures and things he wishes he’d done better.  It’s that honesty that makes me trust him when he writes about those things he believes are successful.

He’s a lyricist, and I’m not, but he has things to say which resonated with me in my own approach to writing.  He identifies three principals:

‘Content dictates  form

Less is more

God is in the details

all in the service of Clarity’

It’s in that precarious balance between the ‘less’ of Principal 2 and the ‘details’ of Principal 3 where the craft of writing  produces something worth reading (or singing).

Sondheim berates himself and others where they have padded lines with superfluities  in order to make them scan or fit the music, he acknowledges where he has written things so sparely that audiences didn’t get it.  And then, usually, he tells a tale of how, based on feedback from others or his own observations, he went away and improved it, or threw it away and wrote something new.

Musical theatre production is a far more collaborative process than novel writing, but even for the solitary novelist there are plenty of people prepared to offer an opinion as soon as you send a piece of writing out into the world on its own.  It’s the knowing when to listen to them that’s the tricky thing.  What I’ve taken from Sondheim is that you should listen to comment, but then you are free to respond to it in your own way (which can include ignoring it entirely).

He loves rhyme, which he uses as the building block of his lyrics.  One of my particular favourites is in ‘Follies’:

‘In the depths of her interior

Were fears she was inferior

And something even eerier,

But no-one dared to query her


Exterior’ for Diana Rigg singing the whole song

He has interesting things to say about how pronunciation will affect rhyme.  Leaving aside the disparities between American and UK accents, he tells a tale of differences between himself (from NYC) and Leonard Bernstein (from near Boston) while collaborating on ‘West Side Story’.  (Does ‘gone’ rhyme with ‘lawn’?  Yes in Boston; No in NYC)  But in a story about gangs in NYC, Sondheim’s view had to prevail.  Another lesson in the importance  of  using consistency and care when using  ‘dialogue’ to paint and create character.

He also rails against the sin of mis-stressing, of the mismatch between the normal stress of the words and the accented note of the music.  While having no direct impact on a short story or a novel, I can see parallels.  It often helps me to edit a piece by reading it aloud.  If I stumble over a phrase it is usually a sign that the sentence isn’t working and needs attention.

So I do have something in common with the great man, AND we agree that ‘Adelaide’s Lament’ in ‘Guys and Dolls’  (by Frank Loesser) is  one of the best songs in musical comedy. (Sorry, I’ve looked for a link on Youtube for you, but they’re all awful, so I recommend against.  Vivian Blaine in the Original Broadway Cast recording is the one to find.)

Leave a comment


  1. camon

     /  January 13, 2011

    ” It often helps me to edit a piece by reading it aloud. If I stumble over a phrase it is usually a sign that the sentence isn’t working and needs attention.”
    19th century French writter Flaubert had the same practice, known as the “gueuloir”,where he shouted his texts out ,in order to test how the words and sentences flowed.
    To read more about Flaubert’s gueuloir:

    Another 19th century writter would read his production to his maid or concierge. I am trying to find out who he was.
    I’ll let you know.

    • Alain, Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. I am delighted to be in such excellent company – I must get a maid immediately!


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