Finishing the Top Hat

This entire website is written with the assumption that the reader brings with them a fairly advanced education in magic. No single post will rely more upon that premise than this one. If you are just getting into magic, skip this post. Focus on the fundamentals of magic and not one silly magician’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s mantra into magic speak.

Stephen Sondheim is one of the master lyricists and songwriters of our time: a true living legend. In his book, Finishing the Hat, he begins by laying out his mantra for song writing.

And here, humbly I apply his mantra to magic to see what us lowly magician’s can learn from the master of a neighboring art.

“Content Dictates Form”

The content of teenagers having a limited and slang infused vocabulary inspired the form of West Side Story’s lyrics; lyrics which lack any vivid images or complex language.

The content of Seurat’s painting style of making images with only tiny dots of color inspired the form of the song “Color and Light,” which uses pointed repetitous notes in Sunday in the Park with George.

The content of Mrs. Lovett being a scatterbrained crazy person inspired the form of her opening song in Sweeney Todd which lacks any consistent rhyme, chorus, or verse structure.

The content of burning a flag in celebration instead of protest inspired the form of Penn and Teller’s flag trick– a loose translation of a classic silk and cone vanish.

The idea that a camera phone can go on a journey and then tell its story inspired the form of their CellFish trick– a simple object to impossible location.

This stands in direct contrast to how most of us have been taught to create magic. Magic books, lectures, tricks themselves all cultivate a “form first” mentality. We discover a trick, (the form), which we fancy and then we set out to create a presentation, (the content), to accompany it. If my form is a card trick, then my content can be gambling. Or fate. Or how the Queen fell in love with the King.

This isn’t content, this is windowdressing.

That’s not to say you can’t do a card trick which is content driven. The content of an artist willing to die for their art (and of the ludicracy of such) inspired the form of Penn and Teller’s Water Tank, where Teller dies while doing a card trick.

This is no longer windowdressing; suddenly there is content and a fully fleshed out, incredible piece of magical theatre.

Resist the habit to create magic “form first.” Deteremine what content is important to you. What ideas keep you awake at night? What inspires you? What makes you smile and chuckle? Figure that out and then adapt a trick to fit that.

Only then will you begin creating your best work.

“Less is More”

In Sondheim’s books Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, he exposes entire swathes of lyrics which have been cut from various songs. Reading these canned lyrics, it is difficult to find anything wrong with them- except that many of them are redundant. They reiterate points which the audience has already collected, or they choose to meander instead of marching the plot forward. Less is more, so Sondhiem relentlessly disposed of these excess bars of music.

As I write this, I find myself at a point where I am weeding out the lesser jokes from my show. There’s humor in a magic trick involving whiskey, but do I really need four jokes to convey the idea that this trick must be fun to rehearse? Less is more, and indeed I have recieved feedback in the past that I linger in this moment too long.

In the past I’ve written about cutting excess phases out of routines. My cus and balls and ambitious card routines are both less than four phases long at the time of this writing.

Generally speaking, if you can use fewer words to setup your punchline, do it. If you can use a subtlety instead of a sleight, do it. If you can convey an idea or emotion using a glance rather than a spoken line, do it.

“God is in the Details”

There is no bigger critic of Sondheim than Sondheim. It’s been over forty years since West Side Story debuted, yet he still laments the awkwardness of some of the lyrics in the show. Speaking of “America” he writes, “some [lyrics] melt in the mouth as graelessly as peanut butter and are impossible to comprehend, such as ‘For a small fee in America,’ which smashes the ‘l’s and ‘f’s together, making it sound like ‘For a smafee.'” This is a tiny detail, and a mistake brought on by the high tempo music, but Sondheim’s analysis is correct- the difficult lyric is a blemish which would be cleared with sheer work.

Copperfield is said to have spent several hours working with his choreographer on the proper way to close a door for one of his illusions. You’ll never notice the work spent on such a minute aspect during one of his performances. The moment won’t stand out as significant, but that’s the point. Every detail of Copperfield’s show is so supremely polished you’d think he’d be the most successful magician in the history of the world or something.

The details are what elevate a piece to the next level. Individually, they matter little- but when every detail of a show is polished the whole thing sparkles.

Make your work sparkle.

“All In The Service of Clarity”

The honest depiction of urban teenagers is not muddled and tarnished by giving them sophisticated lyrics just because the form is a musical. They speak and sing like teenagers. When you allow your content to dictate form, you achieve clarity.

“Pretty Little Picture,” one of my favorite songs from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, is often cut from modern productions of the show because it holds up the action without delivering anything new about character or plot. Audiences were confused as to why there was a song where there shoudn’t be one. Including less, rather than more, achieves clarity.

“America” is a finely constructed song, until someone in the audience hears “smafee” and becomes lost or even worse, distracted. Fanatical attention to detail creates clarity.

Do we magicians achieve such clarity? Is that what we are going for with our middle aged illusionists who dance to current pop hits before giant boxes, or our recitations of heart wrenching soliloquies about the mystery of time to accompany a Gypsy Thread Routine (Form Dictating Content)?

Is this why we perform ambitious card, linking ring, cups and balls, and card manipulation routines which reach the double digit phase mark (More is Less)?

Or why we can execute fancy wand spins to make a little coin vanish, but we fumble when it comes to arranging audience members onstage, uncapping a marker, remembering our script, getting our tie the correct length, or selecting a chair which matches the aesthetics of our gimmicked table (Atheist to the Details)?

Hopefully the state of our world can become clearer for us all, and rapidly.

As with my Vonnegut article, I will chose to end with the words of the master.

“If a lyric writer observes this mantra rigorously, he can turn out a respectable lyric. If he also has a feeling for music and rhythm, a sense of theater and something to say, he can turn out an intersting one. If in addiction he has qualities such as humor, style, imagination and the numerous other gifts every writer could use, he might even turn out a good one, and with an understanding composer and a stimulating book writer, the sky’s the limit.”

Look I made a hat/ Where there never was a hat.

Know somebody who needs to hear this? Please pass it along to them!

Have your own insights? Please comment below!

Did you really read this far down? Thank you so much, you are awesome!

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