Day 83: ICHSIB – Stephen Sondheim (1970)

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– from “Being Alive” / Company

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One of the things I’ve talked about in my classes is the idea that whatever definition we choose to assign to “The Good Life,” some kind of sacrifice will always be part of it. One of the sacrifices I had to make to get my M.F.A. (aside from eight years of my life and tens of thousands of dollars in debt that I’ll be paying off into my fifties), was letting go of the magic of sitting in a theatre without thinking about the writing, the acting, the directing, and all the other elements that make a play a play. Sometimes, though, I still find moments when I’m able to feel a performance instead of thinking about it, and when I do, I cherish it, because it reminds me, even now, why I chose to do what I do – and why I’d never go back.

I had one of those moments the first time I watched John Doyle’s staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Company.

The action in Company revolves around one main character, Robert, whose friends all call him Bobby. On the surface, he has almost everything: he’s thirty-five; he’s attractive; he’s well-off; and he’s surrounded with friends and girlfriends, all of them competing for his time – and all of trying to tell him what to want and how to want it.

Early in the first act, when Bobby tries (and twice fails) to blow out the candles on his birthday cake, he doesn’t make a wish. He even admits it to his friends. He doesn’t want anything, and you can tell from his eyes that he’s lost in his own life – and in all the voices echoing inside his head – like he’s living his life according to a script. At the end of the second act, those echoes finally overwhelm him, and he silences them with a single, desperate scream.

He walks across the stage, sits down at the piano, and starts to sing “Being Alive,” the last song in the show and his own musical epiphany.

At first, his voice is filled with cynicism, and the echoes start to return. But instead of his head, they’re coming from his heart. His own voice begins to change, and the music pauses after one last echo: “Want something. Want something.”

Bobby’s cynicism is gone – and so are his anger and his doubt. He wants something, and he’s no longer living his life according to a script.

That simple realization leaves him shaken, and he fights to find his breath. His first few words are slow, aching whispers that almost get caught in his throat, but as the song goes on, his voice grows fuller and more assured.

He takes two halting, awkward steps toward the front of the stage and finishes the song standing alone in a single unforgiving spotlight. He’s vulnerable, he’s unafraid, and he’s totally spent. And it’s absolutely beautiful.

He smiles, takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, looks up toward the spotlight, makes a wish, and exhales as the stage goes black. He has no idea if he’ll ever get it – and neither does the audience – but that’s not the point. He wants something, and he’s finally, finally ready to accept the sacrifices that he’ll have to make to try to find it.

The first time I watched Raul Esparza sing that song – and saw the exhaustion and honesty in Bobby’s face, I cried – one of those rare moments of getting lost in a performance.

I know some – maybe even most – of you probably are thinking, “What does any of this have to do with the good life?” Depending on your definition, the answer might be nothing at all.

But I hope that isn’t true. I hope that you, each and every one of you, find your own something – the something that you want so much it makes you fight to find your breath – or makes your voice get caught inside your throat – or makes you take two halting, awkward steps into the spotlight – or leaves every fiber of your being vulnerable and unafraid and totally spent – and makes you ready to accept the sacrifices that you’ll have to make to even have a chance to find it.

Don’t be afraid it won’t be perfect. The only thing to be afraid of, really, is that it won’t be. Want something. Want something.

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(Tomorrow, I’ll post a video clip of the Esparza performance as my usual Sunday video.)

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