Saturday, May 21, 2011


I've been on a bit of a Stephen Sondheim kick lately, maybe because of his longtime connection with Anthony Perkins, one of my perennial preoccupations/happy obsessions. These two were similar in that they were both intricate, impossible, brilliant, and (in spite of their vast creative contribution) essentially unknowable.

Though Perkins was prematurely snatched at 60, Sondheim is still with us at 80-some. One of his many legendary shows was Company (1970), in which T. P. almost played Bobby, the still point at the centre of a comedy of couples. When it comes to relationships and love, Bobby won't commit, but committed people (or people who should be committed) swirl all around him.

Somehow Tony Perkins wasn't available. Another commitment, you see. Or he didn't really need to "play" Bobby; he was too busy being him.

I tried to find a really good version of an incredible song, Being Alive, Bobby's final soliloquy/aria/heartsong. I went through Bernadette Peters, whom I've always loved; Patty LuPone; Barbra Streisand; even Julie Andrews. Nada, naynay, nonenonenone, can't get into it and am almost at the point of giving up.

Then I stumbled on. . . this.

It's Dean Jones, yes, that Dean Jones from the Love Bug series and innumerable other Disney flicks. I didn't even know he could sing. It's a recording session, probably the original cast recording judging by the fact that Sondheim looks like a middle-aged juvenile delinquent. But what Jones does here is beyond singing. He opens his mouth, his eyes soft with a frightened vulnerability, and releases this hymn, this almost unbearable paean to the aching neccessity of love.

Jesus! He can't just sing: he can fly. Where has he been all my life? I don't know if I've ever heard a song turned inside-out like this. Along with flat-out artistry, he possesses a soaring technical brilliance, the ability to sustain a phrase in a clean, steady arc for an impossibly long time. He builds and builds the drama as the orchestra crescendos and begins to thunder at the end. . .and when it's over and he stands there with a tense, "was that any good?" look clearly visible on his face, there's an eerie silence in the studio. Sondheim mumbles something about it being adequate. Then, almost like at the end of Laugh-in, sparse applause, the sound of a few hands clapping.

When I hear something this good, which is never, I want to do something really extreme, like throw all my manuscripts on a bonfire, committ suttee or whatever it is (but my husband would have to do it first, damn it). When I hear something this exalted, I want to just chuck my ambitions and go take a long walk in the park (ten years ought to do it). But at the same time, it goads me to be better than I know how to be.

This song is about someone who can't fully live until he learns to open himself wide to the splendors and catastrophes of love. I wonder why I have such a visceral response to it. Love is at the centre of my life, and in fact, I know it is my central purpose. Of this I have no doubt. But what does it mean, what does it really mean to love? Do we ever get it right?

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