Over the next few weeks, I’m going to explore some of the key themes in Sondheim songs and address the ways in which Sondheim returns to certain ideas or dramatic plot points. It might help to know that I’m primarily a dramatist, so I’m going to be looking at the work in that way first rather than the music. This week we’re looking at five songs from Into the Woods, Company, Merrily We Roll Along, Passion and Follies.
Merrily We Roll Along: ‘Now You Know’
Okay, now you know,
Now forget it.
Don’t fall apart at the seams.
It’s called letting go your illusions,
And don’t confuse them with dreams.
Of all of Sondheim’s songs about knowing things, this one might be my favourite (though there’s no handy YouTube performance to watch you can hear it here, and it is also available on Spotify/Amazon). It’s my favourite because it is written in the space between things that Sondheim delights in, and no one else really knows quite what to do with.
Here, the whole song is about knowing things are crappy and somehow still functioning anyway. In the face of terrible, cheesy advice, where the bad thing is branded the ‘best thing that ever could have happened’, Mary tells the truth (perhaps even when she can’t see it herself in her own life). The truth in Sondheim is always harder because it is never the straightforward option – it requires maturity to accept that the thing is both crap and potentially useful. There is truth in ambivalence as well as clarity – and this is a unique feature of Sondheim’s writing that I want to explore more over the coming weeks.
Into the Woods – ‘I Know Things Now’
This really picks up the same idea, it lays out the tension between knowing and being able to deal with knowing, there’s always a cost to the realisation. In the complex story of Into the Woods, it comes very early on, Little Red is the first to have her ‘awakening’ in the forest and to come to terms with the inherent ambivalence of being a grown up.
Obviously, this song has the added layer of skirting around sexuality (all of Little Red’s dealings with the Wolf are absolutely full of innuendo and sometimes just overtly sexual). But that’s not the key issue here for the character, it’s her figuring out that exciting is not necessarily the same thing as a sensible idea, and how many of us needed to learn that lesson as teenagers? And still do to some extent, since exciting is constantly flashed before us as the best possibility in our lives (we don’t want the sensible car, we want the slightly exciting one).
Within the musical, Red figures it the lesson about the cost of exciting first. Her realisation pre-empts all of the other painful lessons that the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, Cinderella, Rapunzel, well that everyone else in the musical will have to learn. So it makes sense that this song is sung directly to us as the audience rather than to any other character – no one else is where she is yet.
The key character advice here ‘nice is different than good’ – again, something that I think we can often forget, or similar variations of ‘seductively appealing’ is not the same thing as a ‘good idea’. Red sings: ‘isn’t it nice to know a lot, and a little bit not’ as the conclusion of her song. Once again, the cost of having this knowledge is hinted at, being a grown-up kind of sucks, just a bit, and a little bit not.
This song sees a different kind of knowledge being shared: Harry explains to Bobby about the dual state of marriage he experiences, that marriage can be both the right and the wrong thing at the same time. Here played by Stephen Colbert, the ‘regretful/happy’ state of being both ‘sorry’ and ‘grateful’ summons the other married men. As they share their experiences they validate Harry’s account (indeed, surely the women in this show would share this story too). All of the three men who sing to Bobby share the grown-up ambivalence and acceptance of something that they don’t quite understand, but they know is both things at the same time. It’s what Bobby can’t quite get – that marriage requires repeated compromises, and that such a state might be both the best possible one and also sometimes, well, if not the worst, certainly… one full of regret. It’s a wistful song, they are not planning their divorces, but rather sharing that accepting this knowledge about their own lives and marriages doesn’t quite make sense, except of course, it absolutely makes sense.
Follies – ‘Who’s that Woman?’
So now we head to one of Sondheim’s great dance numbers, featuring tap, two choruses (one real – one ghosts of memories summoned by the older women). The song starts with a question ‘who’s that woman I know so well?’ as the singer looks in a mirror.
What’s remarkable about this song is it is intended to be sung by young women, everyone on stage is remembering their former glory – they are showgirls reperforming this number. Yet listen to the lyrics – this song has nothing to do with being 20, and everything to do with a recognition that the ‘saddest gal in town’, whose ‘lothario has let her down’, who ‘lives with too much glee, on reflection she’d agree, mirror mirror, that woman is me’. With Sondheim, not a word is wasted, the woman ‘so clever, but ever so sad’, is clearly a reflection on the older women – it can only be understood in the context of the failed reflection between looking back as an older woman and expecting to see your younger self. Even for a dramaturgical nerd such as myself, the layers of storytelling get a bit bonkers here: how do these older women summon their younger ghosts? What does it mean when we see them dance almost as well as their original follies girl selves? How does this self-knowledge compare with the characters current state? Answers on a postcard, please…
Passion – ‘Epilogue’
Epilogue sequence from Passion Here one of Sondheim’s most problematic characters speaks after death, so we have the shift from Giorgio reading to Fosca’s own voice, which allows us to have the two voices in harmony together in a soaring duet. The letter is conveying Fosca’s new knowledge after having had sex with Giorgio, but it allows them to speak as lovers, as loved and beloved.
The letter is conveying Fosca’s new knowledge after having had sex with Giorgio, but perhaps more importantly, having been loved by Giorgio. The song is a release, Fosca sheds the defensive mechanisms that so much pain has wrought on her for so many years.
Everything we’ve heard about her before has been to contrast her with the more conventionally, lovable, acceptable Clara. Yet Fosca here is allowed a conventional duet, in close harmony with Giorgio (even though she has died).
Why is love so easy to give, and so hard to receive?
This knowledge is often a key feature of so many of Sondheim’s characters. Learning to be loved is often significantly more difficult than loving; think Buddy’s Blues, think Georges in Sunday, think Bobby. In the final moments of this sequence in Passion, the whole company comes together to sing the final harmonies as Fosca tells her lover that should he die, ‘your love will live in me’. Since Giorgio is singing it we hear reality as it is, Fosca died, and her love has to live in him. The final notes in the strings are sparse, leaving Giorgio alone to work out how his life might have to change as a result of what Fosca learnt (and subsequently taught him).
For Sondheim’s characters, knowing is a complex uneasy state: knowing things isn’t easy, understanding things comes at a cost. And it’s worth it, of course, just a little bit not.