One post I've gotten some (polite) adverse feedback on is my "Why Sondheim can't write a love song" post, where I argued that Stephen Sondheim's ballads tend to suffer from vague, non-specific, generalized lyrics that could be about anything. As the comments noted, I was the one who was over-generalizing, and that's a fair point to make. (It's also a fair point to make that I over-indulged in jokey contrarianism for its own sake, blurring the line between serious points and over-the-top ones.)
Still, I can't say I've really changed my mind on the subject since reading Sondheim's first volume of collected lyrics, "Finishing the Hat." (It covers most of his produced shows from 1954-1981, with a second volume -- featuring the later shows and hopefully an appendix of other lyrics -- due out later.) I don't want to say anything about the book just yet, so this post won't quote anything from the book or Sondheim's annotations. But the lyrics are almost all familiar quantities, so I have to say that it still strikes me that he shuts down and goes bland whenever a ballad is called for.
There are lots of examples that jump out at me but the one that really struck me this time around was the climax of Anyone Can Whistle, a ballad called "With So Little To Be Sure Of," the most sincere moment in a surreal show and therefore the key moment in the evening. And while I've never cared much for the song (or the show), the incredible vagueness of the lyric stands out for me; there's really not an actual concrete image in the whole thing:
With so little to be sure of,
If there's anything at all,
If there's anything at all,
I'm sure of here and now and us together.
All I'll ever be I owe you,
If there's anything to be.
Being sure enough of you
Makes me sure enough of me.
Thanks for everything we did,
Everything that's past.
Everything that's over too fast,
None of it is wasted,
All of it will last,
Everything that's here and now and us together...
And so on. Now a moment like this arguably calls for vagueness because the characters aren't supposed to be three-dimensional; the show was a fable and there were very few "real" things in the show that could be incorporated into the lyric. But it's not just in that show; it happens in ballads all through the book, as early as West Side Story and as late as Merrily We Roll Along. But also, that's the kind of moment when other lyricists compensate for thin characters by finding other images and concrete ideas that can flesh out a typical subject; half the art of traditional lyric writing was finding some new image to express an old idea. It's what made Yip Harburg portray love as literally a force of nature in "Right as the Rain" or Sondheim's bete noire Larry Hart compare loneliness to being adrift on the ocean ("guided by just a lonely heart"), or even a less distinctive ballad like "Lost in Loveliness" calls forth a number of powerful images from Leo Robin, all of them describing what the singer does, not just what he feels (looking, going mad, reaching for a star, closing your eyes, walking away, dreaming, praying). Possibly because of his rule that nothing outside the show is relevant to a song, Sondheim often spends important numbers putting nothing but the familiar (abstract feelings, mostly) into a lyric. Which is how you get a lovely Richard Rodgers tune slightly weighed down by this fairly typical Sondheim idea (though at least it's got some hugging and holding in there to keep it from floating away into total abstraction):
Take the moment,
Let it happen,
Hug the moment,
Make it last.
Hold the feeling
For the moment
Or the moment
Will have passed.
He's hardly the only great lyricist who does this, of course. Still, I think one reason "Send In the Clowns" became a hit is that even though many listeners weren't sure what the title meant, it still conjures up something outside of the song -- a physical image, and even something happening (the clowns are already here). "Not a Day Goes By," which people keep trying to make into a hit ballad (they can't, because it's a rather poor song), is just a laundry list of feelings and abstract emotions in both its "happy" and "angry" versions -- though, typically, the angry version is a bit more concrete -- and doesn't have that kind of physical hook that can set it apart. Whereas "Losing My Mind," a song with some currency outside of the show, has all kinds of actual things, objects, actions, for the singer and the audience to latch onto and feel that there's a world being conjured up by the song.
While I'm at it, I should say a couple of things about Sondheim's criticisms of older lyricists -- and here, again, I'm going to stick to things he's said in the past, rather than direct quotations from the book. The things he's said about Larry Hart have always been fair, up to a point. That is, when he points to an example of mis-stress or awkward verbiage in Hart's lyrics, he's usually right, though he doesn't always distinguish between minor mis-steps and ones that actually hurt the song. (As an example of the latter: "Love Never Went to College," the song I quoted in my other post, is almost crippled by the fact that Hart sets Rodgers' tune with a strong accent on the first syllable of "never," making that syllable more strongly accented than "love," which is the actual subject of the song. The fact that this song never became popular probably has something to do with the fact that it's so terribly awkward to sing due to Hart's foul-up.)
My problem with Sondheim's comments on Hart are threefold. One I just mentioned, that he always tends to give the impression that all technical lapses are equally bad. This principle isn't a problem for his own lyrics -- at least not a big problem; it can lead to bloodlessness -- but isn't great for encouraging younger lyricists to take the kind of wild risks (with language, imagery, sound and sense) that can produce distinctive talents. I wouldn't really want someone conducting a songwriting workshop on that principle, but it's my impression that a lot of people do (which obviously is not Sondheim's fault; he's more a symptom than a cause). So you get the current situation where pop lyricists, with all their flaws of technique, are willing to put more weird and wild ideas into their songs than most theatre lyricists. And it doesn't have to be that way.
Another is that his comments, repeated often over the years, have helped create a portrait of Hart as an irredeemably sloppy technician. Now, again, that's not really Sondheim's fault; he's a contributing factor, but the main problem is that the Rodgers and Hart shows that get revived most often -- particularly Pal Joey and Babes in Arms -- include some of his worst work along with some of the best. By the late '30s and early '40s, for various possible reasons (drinking, growing apart from Rodgers, increasing involvement with book-writing and other tasks), Hart's work had become very uneven, and could go from technically brilliant to very sloppy in the same show or even two refrains of the same song. There are some shows from that period where Hart's work is great almost all night, but they're often flops like Higher and Higher (a much better score, song for song, than Pal Joey). And if you look at Rodgers and Hart's shows from the '20s, up to and through their stint in Hollywood in the early '30s, Hart's work is much more consistently sharp; even though he was rhyming even more heavily then, he usually managed to do it while keeping the lyrics clear and singable. (Look at "Manhattan," an early Rodgers/Hart song where the lyric maintains is colloquial style amidst a barrage of rhymes and jokes.) Basically a close look at Rodgers and Hart's work would show that Hart got sloppier as he got closer to death -- which doesn't let him off the hook for sloppiness, but is a bit different from saying that he was always sloppy. Though I may be biased because I think Rodgers and Hart's best work was in their '20s shows and movies like Love Me Tonight; by the time they split up, it was probably time for both of them to move on and find new partners (Rodgers did, of course; Hart died before he could find someone else to work with).
And the final thing is it just encourages a sort of culture of nit-picking which has become the bane of all pop-culture discussion, but has also infected the way Broadway buffs discuss lyrics: I'm always hearing "worst lyrics" discussions where most of the examples are gotcha-type examples of words that aren't real words, or images that couldn't exist in real life. (This isn't a Hart example, but seriously, can we stop making fun of the lark learning to pray? Have you seen the show? That's exactly the image that this character would come up with.) Which again helps perpetuate the idea that the best lyrics are sensible, technically perfect and realistic ones, an aesthetic that doesn't leave much room for a Hart or a Bob Merrill or many other great lyrics that don't follow every rule of lyrical technique. Again, some criticisms of technique -- bad stress, bad rhymes, unclear sense -- are fair. When it turns into critiquing lyrics for its own sake, irrespective of whether they work or not, it becomes limiting.