“Finishing the Hat”: Sondheim, W.S. Gilbert, and Expert Malpractice

Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat” is a fascinating reflection on a remarkable career and the craft of making musicals by the greatest living master of the form. In the course of recounting his formative years, triumphs, failures, and duels with producers, authors and composers, Sondheim also critiques the lyrics of his predecessors, contemporaries and role models—as long as they are dead. In a nod to gentility or cowardice, the only living lyricist he subjects to his expert critiques is himself.

Sondheim is a tough judge, as one might expect from a composer/lyricist who meticulously measures each vowel sound and stressed syllable for maximum effect. He is also, by virtue of both his reputation and technical expertise, an influential one. The lyricists he grades highly in the book, such as Frank Loesser, Cole Porter and Dorothy Fields, are likely to have their reputations burnished by his praise, and those he slams, like Lorenz Hart and Noel Coward, will suffer by comparison. Because of this, Sondheim had an obligation, as a respected expert in his field, to make each case carefully and fairly. To his credit, Sondheim seems to recognize this, and all of his critical discussions of an individual lyricist’s style and quirks include specific examples and careful analysis. We may disagree with Sondheim as a matter of personal taste, but it is difficult to argue with his specific points, because they are backed up by examples, technical theory, and the weight of his authority.

It is therefore surprising and disappointing to see Stephen Sondheim slide into expert malpractice when he undertakes, clearly half-heartedly, a critique of the lyrics of W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. In a boxed review in the midst of his comments on Pacific Overtures (one assumes it appears here because Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic The Mikado shares a Japanese theme with that show), Sondheim expounds on how the lyrics of Gilbert are “an unacquired taste” for him, and generally dismisses the lyrics and the shows themselves as “stodgy” and boring. Sondheim has every right to this opinion, of course, and plenty of people share it. But what is shocking in his analysis is that it becomes very clear as he proceeds that Sondheim really doesn’t know the works of Gilbert and Sullivan very well. His assessment, such as it is, seems to be based on watching some performances, of varying quality, of the three most performed G&S shows, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado, during which, by his own admission, his mind “wandered.” This explains why his judgment of Gilbert’s lyrics seems to be restricted to his patter songs (a distinct minority among Gilbert’s lyrics, though a famous one), and primarily one patter song,“The Major General’s Song”, at that. “Gilbert is the master of prattle,” Sondheim writes. “I am the very model of a modern major general” is indeed famous prattle, but there are at most four or five songs like it among the 14 Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Other great Gilbertian patter songs, like “The Nightmare Song’ (from Iolanthe), “A Private Buffoon,” (from The Yeomen of the Guard ) and “If You’re Anxious For To Shine” (from Patience) are more typical, substantive, witty, and representative of Gilbert’s skill. I doubt Sondheim has ever heard them or read them; he certainly hasn’t studied them like he has every word Oscar Hammerstein wrote. If he had, he couldn’t have written what he did.

Similarly, Sondheim refers to Gilbert’s ballads as “bloodless.” I hate to accuse an eminent scholar of faking it, but again, I question whether he has given Gilbert’s ballads a thorough, fair, or even cursory hearing. That verdict smacks of a bluff by a student who hasn’t done his homework. Victorian ballads tended to be bloodless, but Gilbert’s were definitely not.  Some are philosophically profound (“Is Life a Boon?”), some are tongue-in-cheek (“If Somebody There Chanced to Be”), and some are thrilling (“A Simple Sailor”). Frankly, “bloodless” is a description that fits more of Sondheim’s ballads than Gilbert’s. Did he devote any serious, diligent study to Gilbert’s lyrics? The evidence says he did not, both in such off-hand and inaccurate insults as “bloodless”, and, more tellingly, in the fact that Sondheim includes no examples of Gilbert’s lyrics to illustrate his complaints.

With every other lyricist, Sondheim uses several exerpts from the writer’s work to show the tendency, flaw or virtue he is discussing. Not with Gilbert. His comments suggest, in fact, that his examination of Gilbert’s work, unlike all the rest, came exclusively from watching performances rather than from listening to the songs or reading the lyrics. This, of course, is unfair, and incompetent as well.

There is further proof that Sondheim did not give sufficient study to the British master lyricist, and that his own work would have benefitted if he had. Discussing his A Little Night Music, Sondheim notes that he found writing the Finale of Act I of that show to be a challenge, because it required a long form operetta-style number that built the plot to a climax, using multiple characters. What he finally wrote was “A Weekend in the Country,” one of the more tedious and drawn-out of Sondheim’s efforts. Had he studied his Gilbert and Sullivan, and especially if his Gilbert and Sullivan knowledge extended beyond the three shows most favored by amateurs, Sondheim would have discovered the very model for what he was seeking to wind up A Little Night Music’s first act. Gilbert’s Act I finales are high points of most of the G&S shows, with many interlocking songs and themes, plot surprises and action, usually culminating in a cliff-hanging curtain. The first act finales to Pinafore, Mikado, Iolanthe, Patience, Ruddigore and Yeomen, as well as the second act finale of the three act Princess Ida, have seldom been equaled as pure musical comedy entertainment. Don’t take my word for it: listen to them, and read the lyrics. That’s what Sondheim should have done, too.

I was also stunned and disappointed to read Sondheim’s airy dismissal of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music as “decorative,” whatever that means. It is inexplicable, within a book so passionate and perceptive about the complex symbiotic teamwork between lyricist and composer, for Sondheim to fail to acknowledge Sullivan’s amazing gift of applying melody to point up Gilbert’s humor, set dramatic tone, and define character, all with an understanding of language and rhyme few composers have matched. (Sondheim is one of them.) All I can conclude is that, again, Sondheim is giving a flip and unstudied opinion, in contrast to every other one he offers in the book.

In one chapter, Sondheim justifiably complains about the critic John Lahr writing a negative review of Sweeney Todd without seeing the show. I think his treatment of W.S. Gilbert is equally unethical. Sondheim is justly regarded as an expert, and his opinion carries great weight, not only with his passionate fans, but within the theater and literary world as well. He has every right to have his opinion, but if he was going to criticize a lyricist of Gilbert’s vision, accomplishments, influence, and reputation, Sondheim had an obligation to do so with the same respect, care, and diligence that he applied to every other lyricist. He, like John Lahr, had an obligation to know what he was criticizing, and the evidence indicates that he did not. Gilbert deserves better.

No writer created as many successful musical comedies as W.S. Gilbert; no lyricist has been quoted more, or inspired his collaborator to write more enduring melodies. The American musical can look upon the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as its direct ancestor, and in most cases the ancestor is more vigorous than its descendants. After more than a century, the shows are still entertaining audiences world-wide: last year, there were more productions of H.M.S. Pinafore than West Side Story, more productions of The Mikado than Pacific Overtures, more productions of  The Pirates of Penzance than Sweeney Todd, and more productions of The Gondoliers than Sunday in the Park With George. This alone should have caused Stephen Sondheim to pause and reflect.

An expert has a duty not to mislead others by a attaching his expertise and credibility to an incompetently formed opinion. It is especially unethical to do this when the object of the opinion can’t defend himself. Worst of all, Sondheim’s disrespectful treatment of Gilbert’s work, and that of Sullivan as well, will probably cause those who admire him to remain as ignorant of their brilliant shows as Sondheim is.

That will be his readers’ loss.

[Note: Jack Marshall’s credentials in this area are available upon request.]

6 thoughts on ““Finishing the Hat”: Sondheim, W.S. Gilbert, and Expert Malpractice

  1. Jack Marshall’s credentials in this area are impeccable.

    Just wanted to say that, Jack, and I truly believe it. You have vast cross-genre knowledge and experience in the area of theater, especially musical theater.
    Disappointing news about Sondheim, someone I believe you have admired in the past.

  2. Having just heard of the passing of the great Broadway composer’s death, I came across this article. How disappointing that Sondheim felt this way, especially considering the musical and lyrical complexity and sophistication of his own work.

    I like your mention of 1st act finales; my favorite example of sustained brilliance of the Gilbert and Sullivan team is the 1st act finale of Iolanthe.

    Aside from that, sorry to hear of the master’s death. RIP Stephen Sondheim.

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