On Sondheim’s 90th birthday, celebrate love
Stephen Sondheim is 90 on Sunday. What a time to have a birthday!
I could write, I suppose, about Sondheim and the coronavirus. As with Shakespeare, who knew from the plague, you can apply Sondheim to every moment, even this unimaginable one, for Sondheim might not be God but he most certainly is life. But who needs such a column right now?
Let’s just celebrate all that he has taught us about love — so far. And I’ll make it personal. I’ll talk about my own wedding.
In July 1999. In an old museum in Huron City, Michigan. To Gillian Darlow. All our parents were still alive and well. We planned an all-Sondheim program, performed by friends.
First up was “Marry Me a Little,” a controversial song given the circumstances. It’s from “Company” (1970), one of Sondheim’s best and a show about a confirmed bachelor named Robert, stuck on the edge of change and self-knowledge. (If the world were not unmoored, I would have been reviewing the latest Broadway revival within hours of writing this column, but we’re just not going there).
Why is “Marry Me a Little” such a masterpiece? It’s a song about commitment, really, and about how, when we are young, we think that we can make some kind of bargain that allows for love and independence in some predetermined package with clear boundaries. “Marry me a little,” Robert sings, “love me just enough. Cry, but not too often. Play, but not too tough. Keep a tender distance, So we’ll both be free. That’s the way it ought to be.”
But, as we understand life better, we figure out that no one can really love someone “just enough,” nor cry but not too often, nor play but not too rough. (I’m not touching the “tender distance” line right now.) That’s because we can never predict what lies ahead for us, or how we will change, or how life will change us. This is a song that understands the crucial role of humility and vulnerability in love, maybe better than any song ever written.
In his book, “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim says that “Marry Me a Little” is “an internal monologue of despair and selfdeceptive determination.” I could make political parallels with one of our current leaders, who does not seem to understand that to live is to love. But we’re not going there.
“Loving You,” our next choice, is a song from “Passion” (1994). It’s sung by an obsessive character named Fosca, who insists that our feelings are not controlled by our intellect. “Loving you is not a choice, it’s who I am,” she sings, telling us that love is “not much reason to rejoice,” a reference to how our feelings aren’t controlled by our intellect.
If we lose someone we love, we can’t just rationalize that they’re gone, and we can’t do anything about it, so therefore there is no point in feeling the pain we feel. On the
Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim