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on 12 October 2010
Anyone remotely interested in musical theatre should have this on their shelves. Like his lyrics, Sondheim's commentary on his work - and on that of his collaborators and predecessors - is illuminating, exacting and wonderfully precise. In addition to the final lyrics for every show from Saturday Night to Merrily We Roll Along (he's still at work on Volume 2 which will cover everything else) there are copies of manuscript pages with first ideas and second drafts, hitherto unseen rehearsal photographs, backstage anecdotes, delicious stories, mature reflections and disquisitions upon the art and craft of musical theatre throughout its heyday and beyond. Refreshingly, he's as pitiless on his own shortcomings as he is on other writer. It's worth it for the sidebar essays alone, with Lorenz Hart, Dorothy Fields, George and Ira Gershwin, Noel Coward, WS Gilbert, Oscar Hammerstein and more up for scrutiny. A treasure trove.
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on 15 October 2010
I've had this book for a week now and, try as I might, can't put it down. As already stated, like him (I love him) or loathe him, this book is a must for anyone interested in Musical Theatre from the turn of the 20th Century. The illustrations are worth the price of the book and Mr S's picture editor is to be commended, the working pages of the songs showing how he strikes out whole verses are fascinating. The pen pictures of his 'rivals' are honed to the n'th degree - how much does he dislike laziness, a recurring theme - but these are almost all about those who are no longer with us because "speaking ill exclusively of the dead seems to me the gentlemanly thing to do", if you're a fan of Coward or Lorenz Hart you might be a bit miffed.

The book itself is sadly not perfect, I would happily have paid a bit more for better quality paper; as all of the illustrations are integrated with the text they are not best served and some appear a bit blurred by the level of ink saturation. My other gripe is that the appendix of casts only refers to Broadway 'first nights' and I feel much of interest in the way of cast changes, revivals and London casts could have been included at no great extra cost and effort.

Thanks 'god' - and, please, now get on with the final volume I can't wait!
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on 11 December 2010
This book is an indispensable aid to writing lyrics for musical theatre. But it is so much more than that. For the first time we can read Sondheim's prose so we find out much more about his personality, taste and academic rigour. You will find yourself regretful when he criticises other lyricists' work that you have valued such as Porter, Hart and Berlin. But you are in good company as Bernstein, Laurents and Robbins refused to let Sondheim amend his own lyrics for I Feel Pretty, preferring the imperfections he first came up with.

Unfortunately, this book is not complete and leaves out lyrics from many shows that were never produced including the famous four shows he wrote for his mentor Oscar Hammerstein. Surprisingly, even lyrics he wrote for shows that were produced like Candide have been left out.

What we do get, however, are some wonderful gems. Here, at last, are those cut songs from West Side Story that we have been hearing about for fifty years. These include the words for the instrumental prologue plus This Turf Is Ours, which was replaced with the Jet Song, and Like Everybody Else which is far longer than the version included on Lost in Boston I. And we finally get the lyrics to Mix!, another predecessor of the Jet Song, whose melody was reused by Bernstein for the second movement of his Chichester Psalms, so you can sing along to the Mix! lyrics.

As well as cut songs we also get cut verses so we get two extra choruses for Some People that were never used (but we don't get the cut verse which Sondheim has lost along with Styne's melody. What a loss). In Being Alive, all the verses beginning with 'Someone' are repeated but beginning with 'Somebody'. I once asked Sondheim why was one verse not repeated and left out. He replied he thought it was 'unnecessary' but why that particular verse and not the other three verses? Unfortunately he doesn't explain why in this book.

I could go on and on about the fascinating details in this book. Sondheim is one of the best teachers you can get and that is what keeps you gripped in reading this book. You do get an idea of his striving for perfection here but what you don't get is his fantastic generosity. He always replies to your letters unlike many less eminent people. When I suggested Saturday Night was good enough to be published (and later it was), he disagreed but gave me a copy of his manuscripts including his many lyrical attempts and rejects, some of which are reproduced in this book. For me the best thing about this book is we do at last hear his voice for the first time instead of the many characters he has made sing these past 53 years.
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on 16 October 2010
Mr Sondheim is a tough critic of himself. The lyrics to Maria he finds wet: 'a wetness, I regret to say, which persists throughout all the romantic lyrics in the show'. Some of the lyrics to America, he suggests, 'melt in the mouth as gracelessly as peanut butter and are impossible to comprehend.' His biggest regret, though, was, initially, not being able to write the 'harsher and more realistic expletive he felt should finish the song Officer Krupke. However, he eventually came to realise that Bernstein's suggestion of 'Krup you!' was an improvement, in fact, 'the best line in the show!'(A sentiment presumably shared by Larry David, who used it for a great Curb Your Enthusiasm episode.)

You can see from these few excerpts from the chapter on West Side Story alone, what good companionship Sondheim's commentary provides for readers in this volume of lyrics. This is a wonderful book already and I have only begun to dip in here and there to the musicals I know better.

What range Sondheim shows from 'I Feel Pretty'(a song, unfortunately, that will never be quite the same again for me after Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson's version in Anger Management) to 'Pretty Women'! The light, deliberate simplicity of the lyrics of West Side Story and the teasing, tortuous duet of sex and death in Sweeney Todd. Nothing much darker in musical theatre than the songs and lyrics of the latter:

'City on Fire! / Rats in the grass / And the lunatics yelling in the streets! / It's the end of the world! Yes!' (City on Fire).

This book is an essential purchase for Sondheim fans. Whether Mr Sondheim is a genius, or can be compared to Shakespeare and Chekov, as Trevor Nunn writes on the back of this book, is debatable, but he is undoubtedly a composer and lyricist of the very finest order, and, in this book, a great friend to the reader. After all, as Sondheim knows well, we are all seeking company. He provides it.
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on 26 January 2011
...and is now taking extended sedentary leave in order to digest it. There is much to take in, and all of it deserving extended contemplation.

This is a very frank ramble through the mind of one of the world's best musical theatre composers. From `Saturday Night' (1954) to `Merrily We Roll Along' (1981) - (a forthcoming second book will cover his later work), every major show on which he worked, either as lyricist or full composer, is covered. The major numbers in each are given a running commentary - why they were written or changed, the technicalities of musical theatre creation, plus a few observations and reproductions of his handwritten manuscripts. Always informative, sometimes over-harshly self critical, the dissections gave this reader a healthy new respect for the craft.

It isn't all gloomy introspection, though. Gems such as the truth behind his most amusing (and filthiest) `double entendre' are revealed (sadly, that one was a happy accident of transatlantic English, rather than `planned by a genius' as I'd hoped) are uncovered; while the chaos of the rehearsal room is described in enough detail to make you wish you were there... when it is going well, at least.

Interspersing these show commentaries are some startlingly iconoclastic arguments and opinions about his musical theatre contemporaries. By declaring at the outset that he will only discuss deceased composers work, Sondheim is able to expound fully without inhibition on these. You may agree or disagree with each argument (Noel Coward in particular I felt was a trifle hard-done-by) but each piece justifies its ideas, and is a talking point rather than ill-defined attack.

Other thoughts also feature throughout the text. One mild eyebrow-raiser for me as a theatre reviewer was Sondheim's opinion that musicals are the only art form exclusively reviewed by non-musical people. It's true but, taken to its logical conclusion, it might reduce the entire qualified UK `musical theatre reviewing community' to pretty much Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stiles and Drewe... scary. Also fascinating was his truth that `everybody thinks they can fix a show - they can't.' As somebody who often dares to venture an opinion on such things, that rightly had me thinking again...

Fortunately, I received this as a gift from a friend who was frustrated that I hadn't got around to reading it on publication. The fortune is that because I didn't purchase it, I was able to instead fill the gaps in my Sondheim CD collection. Be warned, if you don't have a recording of each show mentioned in the book, you will very quickly wish to do so. As each disc plays, this book will enhance your pleasure as the numbers acquires a new meaning and many lines take on a fresh significance.

A `must purchase' for fans, and equally a superb guide for the less initiated in the world of a supremely talented man.
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on 17 October 2011
This is a new book which contains the collected lyrics of Stephen Sondheim as written in the first half of his career from 1954 -1981. Sondheim is one of the best writers of music to ever come out of America and is known for the sophistication of his lyrics and music. The book contains all of the lyrics to all of his musicals from 1954 -1981 as well as story's anecdotes and back ground information from Sondheim explaining why and how he wrote each particular piece of music. Sondheim seems to take a very work man like approach to his craft and there is very little background information into what drives or interests him as a composer. I would mostly recommend this book to fans who are interested in how he puts his music together.
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on 18 January 2011
If you are interested in theatre, Sondheim or musical theatre, this is a must. A glorious treasure trove of information on living and working in the working theatre. He is not a teacher (although he would be a great one) or passing comment on a subject he just likes, he is some one who has actually been there at the centre of creating the Broadway musical for over 60 years, a man with some stories to tell and tell 'em he does. With tough love on his own works. This is a glorious read, re-read and a dip in and out of. Volume II as soon as possible please.
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on 30 December 2010
Another successful Christmas present. Perhaps the book is a little too comprehensive-its size makes it hard to handle and for those wearing specs, the print is a bit small. However, what more could a Sondheim freak want?
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on 7 December 2010
As a fan of everything Sondheim this book is tops. It conirms his many skills and and his ability to communicate directly to the reader and/or listener. I love it
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on 15 October 2010
Only received yesterday, so haven't done more than browse. As a Sondheim fanatic, it's everything I was hoping for - except it stops in 1981! Shall have to wait until Volume 2 is released and covers 'Sunday In The Park with George' and 'Into The Woods'. Hope it's not too long in coming, but 450 pages to get through beforehand...
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