Stephen Sondheim, for those of you who don’t follow musical theater, is the genius who wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and the music and lyrics for Company, Follies, Into the Woods, and many other brilliant stage works. He has now published Look, I Made a Hat, the second volume of his collected lyrics and commentary. (The first volume is Finishing the Hat; both titles allude to Sondheim’s 1984 masterwork, Sunday in the Park with George.)
In his “Reintroduction” to Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim offers brief commentary on “a gallimaufry of miscellaneous subjects.” I bookmarked the entry on Clarity:
Let me be clear about clarity, however: of itself it is, in the end, not very nourishing. Narrative art must be clear, but it must also be mysterious. Something should remain unsaid, something just beyond our understanding, a secret. If it’s only clear, it’s kitsch; if it’s only mysterious (a much easier path), it’s condescending and pretentious and soon monotonous.
Substitute “a name” for “narrative art” and the passage is equally true. Purely descriptive names are clear but weak—legally, aesthetically, and narratively—while purely coined or fanciful names are frequently silly, opaque, or off-putting. In the middle are the suggestive names: names that allude to a quality or function yet require the customer or user to exercise a little imagination. These names, like great narrative art, blend clarity and mystery in just the right proportions.
Mandy Patinkin as George in the 1984 production of Sunday in the Park with George.
Speaking of good names, the two volumes of Sondheim’s collected lyrics are available in a slipcovered set called a Hat Box.