So in last week’s Saturday Sondheim: I looked at the idea of knowing things, and what the cost of that is for the characters who learn things but pretty much always have to deal with the ambivalence that leads to. This week – I want to go slightly further into the nerdy academic looking glass of how Sondheim sometimes messes with time. If you thought you were not going to get a Doctor Who reference here then I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry.
Songs can happen in any sort of time scale in a musical, depending on how the rules have been set up. So it might be that this is a musical where someone sings and nobody else can hear them (only the audience), or someone sings their inner thoughts to the audience at all times. More normally it’s the case that people may sing to one another but also talk to one another – so the singing tends towards very intense emotion ‘I love you so much’ ‘I know, I love you’ ‘phew’… rather than ‘will you make me a cup of tea, I prefer it with green milk, because I am not a red top monster’.
Many of Sondheim musicals do something weird with the use of song – as we’ve seen last week with Company: ‘Sorry/Grateful’ is so strong that it summons characters who are not physically in the room to sing with the characters who are in the room. Even for 1970s musicals, that’s pretty unusual. But I wanted to investigate Sondheim songs where time collapses in some way here – because I’m a dramaturg and that kind of nerdery is right up my street.
Pacific Overtures ‘Someone in a Tree’
The full lyrics are available here – if you want to marvel at two versions of the same person appearing in one place in one time. We are in Japan, 1853, and Commodore Perry is negotiating a treaty (the Perry Expedition) in a wooden house. This event is told through the memory of two people who were there, a warrior who can hear what’s going on but not see anything, and a young boy who can see what’s happening but not hear it. But we also hear from an old man who remembers what he saw as a young boy.
The old man tries to climb the tree that he did as a child, and sings repeatedly ‘I was younger then’, so far, so normal, but then the child comes and enters the scene – and he tells the older version of himself ‘tell them what I see’. So now both versions of the same character are appearing in one place at one time, which as any time-traveler will tell you is risking some serious paradox/time stream crash. This is no problem to Sondheim however, and we’re off, with the old man recounting what the child is ‘currently’ seeing. But what’s remarkable is that the child disrupts the memory of the old man:
Old Man: Some of them have gold on their coats
Child: One of them has gold (he was younger then)
So now we’ve got the narrator’s memories being challenged – or rather contextualized as not exactly faulty but being remembered decades after the event. In a historical musical, how much does this then challenge everything we are seeing? It also plays with and collapses time – because both events are happening at the same time, realistically – the old man isn’t hallucinating the younger version of himself. It’s just happening, he retells the memory, summons it, and we see that he was ‘a part of the event’. Who remembers the event, and how, is important to the structure of the whole musical – but what song can do here is just as remarkable.
It’s the fragment, not the day
It’s the pebble, not the stream
It’s the ripple, not the sea
That is happening
Not the building but the beam
Not the garden but the stone
Only cups of tea
And someone in a tree
Follies ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’
So Follies (1971) is a complete time crash, I mean it’s practically a Doctor Who episode. Faced with the demolition of their beloved theatre, former follies girls return to the theatre for one last reunion. This song is very early on in the musical – and we see our two protagonist married couples, Buddy and Sally and Ben and Phyllis relive their youth, remembering the nights ‘waiting for the boys downstairs’. (We already know by this point that Ben and Sally clearly had ‘a thing’ for one another, that Sally has not entirely got over).
But as they sing, they summon the ghosts of their former selves — so that the duet becomes a sort of quartet. Similar messing about with memory happens, Buddy can never remember the name of the doorman (in his 20s or in his 50s).
This song does not quite collapse time in the same way as ‘Someone in a Tree’, it’s more subtle, but it prepares the ground for what follows in Follies – which is to say something completely outside of the realm of musical theatre so far. These people are haunted by their own hopeful younger selves, depending on which production you see – the ghosts watch their older selves shocked at what has become of their more mature, cynical present realities. The memories are tied to one place – the theatre – but the shape and format of the musical essentially collapses into itself.
In Act Two, an entire 1930s style follies sequence takes place in ‘Loveland’, where the couples actually do meet and observe one another. Far more than a dream ballet – it is a kind of David Lynch sequence which challenges so much of what we might have assumed about the younger characters. They aren’t just naive idiots – they do have some sense that they may fight and compromise will be required – but is this a memory or a fantasy version of how they should have been? When Loveland falls apart, the characters are left with the reality of how their lives currently are – and tellingly, they do go home in the original pairs they came in.
The rules of time in musicals are usually pretty fixed – we might get flashbacks – but things generally proceed in a linear fashion. Yet on multiple occasions, Sondheim collapses time and memory to achieve radical dramaturgy that might seem out of place in ‘regular musicals’. This is a thread to be picked up again in the future – if there’s a particular song you would like to unpick a bit more, please do let me know in the comments.