Alone? Not alone? Sondheim’s musicals suggest a new model to define family
News & Notes
West Side Story at 50
Looking back: More from Carol Lawrence and Chita Rivera
Class of ’57: The original cast
West Side Story on film
Library of Congress exhibit looks at West Side Story’s roots
50 years of recordings
Gypsy at City Center
Patti LuPone (finally) gets the role she was born to play
TSR interview: Patti LuPone
TSR review: Gypsy
The critics on Gypsy
Other Features and Interviews
“Every Day a Little Death” changed one writer’s life
Alone? Not alone? Sondheim’s new family model
Todd therapy: Psychoanalyzing Sweeney Todd
Interview: Night Music’s Petra, D’Jamin Bartlett
Tomorrow’s America: Joanne Gordon stages Assassins
Interview: Teri Ralston has played three roles in Night Music
Reviews and Reactions
Theatre of the Stars’ West Side Story tours three cities
Being Alive: Billy Porter’s new revue of Sondheim songs
Night Music in Cleveland
Merrily at Signature Theatre
Company in Sydney
Forum in Finland
Sunday in the Park in Halifax, Nova Scotia
Book review: Biographer Meryle Secrest’s Shoot the Widow
Book review: Stefan Kanfer’s The Voodoo They Did So Well
Cryptic Crossword Solution: Factions, a puzzle based on West Side Story, was published in the Fall 2007 issue
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
Alone? Not alone?
Sondheim’s musicals suggest a new model to define family
BY JANET W. HARDY
Family in its various permutations is not a new subject for the musical theatre. Musicals from Oklahoma to Xanadu have sung the praises of the nuclear family, and especially of the romantic pairing — the male/female married or soon-to-be-married couple — at its heart.
Stephen Sondheim is known for his cynicism about marriage and the family. His prodigious intelligence, “outsider” status as a gay man and late-20th-century skepticism about the practicality of lifelong pair-bonding have created a body of work that deviates sharply from the happily-ever-afters of traditional musicals. And yet a closer examination of his work, particularly the arc leading from Company and Follies through Merrily We Roll Along and finally to Into the Woods, points to the growth of a radical optimism about new forms of family.
My own work, writing and teaching about alternative family structures (writing as Catherine A. Liszt, I co -authored with Dossie Easton a 1997 study, The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities), leads me to believe that Sondheim’s evolution has paralleled the gestalt of a changing America, rebelling against forces that would equate “family values” with a narrow, unworkable and obsolete definition of family.
Sondheim, whose dislike of the political theatre of Brecht and his followers is not a secret, complains that “the trouble with Brecht is that he always puts politics to the forefront and the characters to the rear.” (His comments were made to Scott McMillin in an essay, “Brecht and Sondheim: An Unholy Alliance ,” published in the Brecht Yearbook in 2005.) In identifying Brecht’s themes as “political,” however, Sondheim uses the term in its narrowest sense. Arguably, the greatest social tension today lies not in governmental or social bodies, but in marriage and the home. Hence, Sondheim’s work on these themes is perhaps as truly “political” as Brecht’s meditations on class and power.
Company: “Whaddaya wanna get married for?”
Sondheim’s two most explicit examinations of marriage were developed almost simultaneously in Company and Follies. They share themes of aging and alienation, and an overt skepticism about the practicability of marriage, fit topics for exploration as traditional definitions of relationship began to fray around the edges in the early ’70s. For the sake of brevity, let’s focus on Company.
Robert, Company’s central character, is a 35-year-old New York bachelor whose social life consists of numerous uncommitted relationships with women and longstanding, committed friendships with five married couples. Through his eyes we see these problematic marriages with the quasi-intimacy of “company.” He is “seven times a godfather,” the perpetual shoulder to cry on and eater of leftovers. We see Sarah and Harry’s veiled hostility come to the forefront when Harry challenges Sarah to try a newly learned karate throw on him and she succeeds in pinning him. We see Peter and Susan save their relationship by the simple expedient of getting a divorce: “We’re so much more married now than we were when we were married.”
Marriage, in the 1970s New York of Company, is both repellent and desirable, impossible and essential. (Significantly, the kind of intimate friendship Robert has with his married friends seems to work much more effortlessly.) Robert, the perennial bachelor, toys with the idea obsessively, at one point asking his friend Harry, “You ever sorry you got married?” Harry’s reply encapsulates the show’s deep ambiguity about the institution:
You’re always sorry,
You’re always grateful,
You hold her thinking, “I’m not alone.”
You’re still alone.
No woman Robert meets has the elusive quality of perfection he seeks. He fantasizes about an idealized combination of all his married woman friends, “a Susan sort of Sarah, a Jennyish Joanne”; he proposes impulsively to the about-to-be-wed Amy; he strings along a cadre of frustrated would-be girlfriends.
As Robert struggles with the pros and cons of marriage, so did his creators. “Happily Ever After,” called by producer Hal Prince “the bitterest, most unhappy song ever written,” was dropped from the show when its bleak cynicism was anticipated to be too much for audiences:
Someone to need you too much,
Someone to read you too well,
Someone to bleed you of all the things
You don’t want to tell.
That’s happily ever after,
Ever, ever, ever after –
Finally, Sondheim and his collaborators settled on “Being Alive,” which went on to be one of his few popular hits. (Sondheim is still unhappy with this ending, calling it a “cop-out.”) In this song, Robert chooses, at least in theory, the problematic intimacy of marriage over the even more problematic loneliness of singlehood — yet, as the play ends, he is, significantly, still single, unable to solve the problem of relationship in a world of alienation.
Merrily We Roll Along: “Good Thing Going”
Merrily We Roll Along is best known as the “backward” show. It begins with its protagonist, composer Franklin Shepard, in midlife, bitterly unhappy and alienated from friends, lovers and his son, then moves in back in time to his idealistic youth in 1957. This modernist time-reversed framework is adapted from the source material for the show, a 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.
This reversed structure, however, presents significant challenges to the viewer. The show ends with a sweet, hopeful, optimistic ballad sung by the young Shepard and his friends, which the thoroughly depressed audience views with the knowledge that these ideals will be shattered along with the friendships that sustain them.
Sondheim denies that any of his shows are autobiographical, but it is significant that the most important relationship Merrily portrays is that of Shepard and his lyricist/collaborator Charley Kringas: Sondheim has invariably chosen to work with librettists, in spite of his proven ability to create scripts as well as music. Merrily was written during the 1980s, the “yuppie” decade in which business success supplanted family as a cultural value — appropriately, then, the “couple” at its heart are business partners rather than sweethearts. One senses Sondheim’s search: If marriage doesn’t work, perhaps friendship and partnership might be a better alternative.
Frank and Charley are “old friends” from childhood. Their collaboration forms when Frank, fresh out of the Army, suggests musicalizing Charley’s political one-act play. Throughout Merrily, their struggles to produce this work are continually frustrated, first by tradition-minded producers and later by Frank’s drive toward conventional, palatable art and its concomitant financial success.
The hinge of the musical, and the foreshadowing — if such a term can be used in this backward structure — of its eventual dénouement, comes when the young Frank and Charley are invited to present their work to a group of New York celebrities. This song, one of Sondheim’s loveliest, contains the entire précis of the show. In the very first line of “Good Thing Going” we see the parallel between Frank and Charley’s friendship/marriage and the art they create together. The song then goes on to predict the eventual death of both the relationship and the art:
It started out like a song.
We started quiet and slow, with no surprise.
And then one morning I woke to realize
We had a good thing going ….
And while it’s going along,
You take for granted some love will wear away.
We took for granted a lot, but still I say:
It could have kept on growing,
Instead of just kept on.
We had a good thing going,
Here we see Sondheim at his most pessimistic: The pressures against successful couplehood — different values, financial constraints, interference from outsiders — are just too great. Audiences, unable to handle the show’s underlying bleak unhappiness, stormed out; the show closed after sixteen performances. One can hardly blame them: to quote Sondheim scholar Sandor Goodhart, “To take seriously what [Sondheim] tells us about our marriages… may make it hard to get on with our day.”
Into the Woods: “No One Is Alone”
Into the Woods shows the mature Sondheim again tackling the thorny problems of marriage and partnership in an alienated and alienating world. Its reassuringly chronological timeline and the comforting familiarity of the fairy tales on which the show is based helped make Into the Woods one of Sondheim’s most successful shows. It is, however, in no way less subversive than any other Sondheim show.
The wishes of all the characters in Into the Woods are in essence one wish, the same wish we saw Robert struggling with in Company: a path out of loneliness. Jack yearns to buy back his beloved cow, Little Red Ridinghood to visit her granny, Rapunzel to descend from her tower, the Baker’s household for a child, Cinderella for a loving prince. They go to the woods, have their adventures, attain new (and sometimes undesired) self-knowledge and win their prizes. Here the classic fairy tale and the classic musical would end. But in Sondheim-land, happiness is not “ever after,” and loneliness is the human condition. The play is only half over.
The beginning of Act II tells a different story. The wife of Jack’s Giant, bereft of her beloved husband — couplehood, we see, must always end, if only in death — arrives to seek her revenge, destroying gardens and homes and killing Little Red Ridinghood’s mother. The characters reluctantly set off to eliminate this threat to their newfound peace. This journey back into the woods is a journey into a different kind of self-knowledge, knowledge of the unreliability of any happiness that depends on others. Several characters are killed by the furious Giant, and Cinderella discards her Prince after discovering his infidelity, leaving only four characters — the Baker (and his infant son), Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood and Jack — to save the town. They work collaboratively to slay the Giant, but her death leaves them purposeless, huddled together on a ravaged stage.
Here, however, for the first time, we see a glimmer of hope from a more mature Sondheim. The remaining characters decide to form an impromptu family in order to serve the traditional functions of companionship and domesticity. The adolescent Jack and Little Red Ridinghood, orphaned by the Giant, vow to take care of each other, but are happy to accept parenting from Cinderella and the Baker and to help parent the Baker’s son. The Baker and Cinderella do not plan couplehood, but partnership. Together yet still individuated, weary but still hopeful, the four will face the rigors of an inimical world.
On the threshold of the coming millennium, Into the Woods offered a proposed solution for the problems of alienation and solitude that have lain at the heart of the culture for more than a century: a new definition of community, based on commonality of interest and mutual respect rather than the outdated and shaky ideal of romantic couplehood.
What We Can Learn from Sondheim: “A city of strangers”
The impossibility of relationships within an alienated, post-industrial culture is one that has occupied many of the 20th century’s greatest artists. Critic Stephen Banfield has pointed out an echo of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land — “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” sounds much like Company’s “Whaddaya wanna get married for?”
It takes only a quick glance at divorce statistics to establish that 20th-century cultural ideals of monogamy and nuclear families, intended to facilitate relationships during a century of increased alienation, did not succeed in their goal. We can hear their death cries in Company and Follies. As we learn in Merrily, friendship is not the answer either. And Woods is certainly not utopian in its suggestion of alternatives. Its handful of ragtag survivors face challenges undreamed of by the sentimentally paired-off couples at the end of most musicals.
However, Sondheim’s view appears to be that the “chosen family” — unlike its predecessors — has at least a chance of success. As we launch into a new millennium of love, family and relationships, we can only hope that he is correct.
JANET W. HARDY has been an educator and sex writer. She is pursuing a graduate degree in nonfiction writing at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., and working on her new book, Girlfag.