"Finishing the Hat" - When a Composer/Lyricist's Soul Comes Through
Who hasn't listened to "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George and not felt like they were getting a glimpse into Stephen Sondheim's soul? The composer has graced us with a plethora of intricately insightful musical experiences, songs that reach down into that confusing and frustrating place we call "humanity" and that extract the unbearable truths of our innermost conflicts . Somehow, though, it is this song that seems to underscore who Sondheim is as a whole.
I appreciate when a composer/lyricist can probe the recesses of their own being and bring their experience to the stage with unfettered truth. "Finishing the Hat" has to be a very personal song for Sondheim. No composer of the American Musical Theatre has quite experienced such polarized reactions to their work. He's been dismissed as cold, cerebral, dark, and neurotic, but hailed as a genius, visionary, and the demigod of the art form. Just as the title character in Sunday in the Park with George seems detached in an effort to keep his art and vision focused, Sondheim steps back to objectively observe the world "from a window" and his art benefits from the attention to detail. Maybe this does seem detached.
I will, nevertheless, make the argument that Stephen Sondheim has a gift for relating the human thought process and conflict of emotions like no other composer (except for maybe William Finn) can. I think the songs we get from him are very much drawn from his personal experiences. "Finishing the Hat" is all about an artist who must let the world pass by around him and disappoint those he loves because the art has to come first. This doesn't mean that he is not feeling, it just means that, to create great art, he has to focus and pour his life force into the project. Isn't this what Sondheim does? You cannot write intricate melodies and deftly meaningful lyrics without some sort of focus and attention to detail. When I listen to "Finishing the Hat," I feel like I understand Sondheim and I know he is connecting to his audience far more emotionally than he is given credit for. And THAT, my friends, is the "state of the art."