This month marked the 90th birthday of Broadway icon Stephen Sondheim (b. March 22, 1930, NYC). The milestone in the life of the eight-time Tony award-winning composer and lyricist of the stage and screen (who has also received an Oscar, eight Grammys, six Olivier Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, the Kennedy Center Honors, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom) was celebrated with the publication of the new pocket-sized book Sondheim: Lyrics, featuring a selection of 66 songs (including two reprises and a second version) from 21 shows spanning his prolific career since the 1950s.
Issued as part of the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series, the compendium is introduced by Peter Gethers, a self-described “Sondheim fanatic” (who co-edited the book with Russell Perreault). He shares stories about their fifteen-year acquaintance and working relationship, his longtime appreciation for the groundbreaking songs, and his justification for using the term “poetry” – even over the insistence of his esteemed subject that, because they are not created in a vacuum, “lyrics are not poetry” – to describe Sondheim’s signature style of intensifying ideas and feelings through the use of rhyme, rhythm, and imagery.
Gethers also notes the precision in Sondheim’s “overriding mantra” of attention to detail, in which an exemplary, but deceptively simple, change of words from “and” into “to” (in “Losing My Mind” from Follies) has served to magnify the song’s psychological and emotional impact. It’s that brilliant specificity of language and diction, and the awareness of their effect, that indisputably place Sondheim in the realm of the poet.
Sondheim’s two preceding volumes of collected lyrics (Finishing the Hat of 2010 – referencing one of his own song titles from Sunday in the Park with George – and the follow-up Look, I Made a Hat of 2011), include the writer’s annotations, analyses, and anecdotes on his best known and most beloved works, as well as some never-before-seen cut songs, early drafts, and unproduced projects. Unlike those, this book, aside from Gethers’ informative and personal introduction, is free from commentary, allowing the beauty, sentiment, meter, and complexity of the lyrics to speak for themselves.
All of the biggest hits are represented, from West Side Story, with which the 27-year-old Sondheim made his Broadway debut as a lyricist in 1957, to Gypsy (1959), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1986), and Assassins (1990). Together they show the breadth and versatility of his contributions to musical theater for more than six decades, understanding and capturing the wit, passion, joy, darkness, regrets, and challenges of the human condition in such classics as “Somewhere,” “Rose’s Turn,” “Comedy Tonight,” “Send in the Clowns,” “Children and Art,” and “Children Will Listen,” with his signature intricacies and eloquence.
Though it may be difficult, if not impossible, for Sondheim aficionados to focus on the words of his most memorable songs without hearing in our minds the famous music to which they’re set (he also created the music for all but the first two of the above shows) or envisioning the enacted scenes we’ve watched on the stage, the anthology also includes lyrics from some lesser-known works, like Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), Evening Primrose (1966), written for the TV series ABC Stage 67, and The Frogs (1974), with melodies and narratives that are not as widely familiar. But their lyrics still evince the profound thoughts, conjure visions of the people and their stories, and elicit the universal feelings that their writer so brilliantly expresses to his own unique beat.
If any doubt remains that Sondheim: Lyrics belongs in this series of “pocket poets,” read the legendary body of work and you will surely recognize that it defies categorization. It’s music, it’s theater, it’s poetry, and, in the words of Sondheim, it’s “the state of the art!”
Sondheim: Lyrics, written by Stephen Sondheim, edited by Peter Gethers and Russell Perreault, with an introduction by Peter Gethers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, 2020), ISBN 978-1-101-90816-7, 224 pages, hardcover, $14.95.