On Sond­heim’s 90th birth­day, cel­e­brate love

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - Chris Jones

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

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