Leah Libresco’s Sing-Along-Blog

I’d like to try out a new kind of post/talkback opportunity this week.  I’m having my birthday party this week, and my plan is to make all of my very nice friends watch two Sondheim musicals with me (Company and Passion) and then have a discussion about the telos of love and marriage.  Plus cake.

Passion is really weird and a little tough to track down (though, in case this is an inducement to order it, after I saw it staged, I told a friend I thought it was a Nietzschean horror story about the weak enslaving the strong by virtue of their weakness.  Note: this is definitely not Sondheim’s read of the musical).

But the Raul Esparza staging of Company is available to stream on Netflix.  So I’d like to reserve this comment thread for discussion of the show, the characters, and the purpose of marriage.  If you can’t watch it, you’re still welcome to riff off of other people’s comments.  And if you end up with something a little long to say, you’re welcome to email me to talk about a guest post or crosslinking.  Getting to host a Sondheim symposium is the best present you could give me as a blogger.

And now, to whet your appetite, John Barrowman singing “Marry Me a Little” in concert (a song from Company, and still my go to example of everything wrong with a bland, “as long as both people are happy” conception of marriage).


And just because I can, and it was recently my birthday, precious, here’s a link to the allegedly crypto-Catholic paper I wrote in college for my Sondheim seminar on Sweeney Todd : “If Only Angels Could Prevail: The Moral Tragedy of Sweeney Todd.”

Definitely one of my favorite papers I got to write in college, especially because I managed to find a way to cite Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art when discussing the role of the Chorus.

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  • Re. “Marry Me A Little”… what an uncomfortable mirror for ourselves.

  • Ah, shoot. For a moment I thought you wanted to write a musical on the telos of love and marriage, heheh.

  • Swoonaroonies! I’m in. You had me at sing-along blog.

    • leahlibresco


      • billybluejames

        Leah, on what day is your birthday?

        • leahlibresco

          It was July 21, but I was away at Bayes Camp then.

          • deiseach

            I have a bad habit of always looking up what saint’s feastday is someone’s birthday, and for 21st July it was formerly St. Praxedes (or Praxedis), Virgin Martyr, then later it became that of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, Confessor and Doctor of the Church (also noted for riding out at the head of the Hungarian Imperial army against the Turks bearing only a crucifix).

            I have no idea what influence, if any, these two saints may have on your life but at least St. Lawrence is renowned for his scholarship, so he fits in with general themes of intellectual Catholicism? (though that’s selling St. Praxedes short on my part).

            For comparison, I’m St. Germain of Paris and St. Augustine of Hippo, and the only resemblance I can see is that Gus and me have the same general attitude to Original Sin and its effect on humanity 🙂

  • Ted Seeber

    As long as you are on that theme, may I suggest a little movie called _The Jewelry Shop_?

  • Joshua Gonnerman

    Company is a fantastic show; watching Bobby go from “Marry Me A Little” to “Being Alive” is a delightful experience.

    At the same time, I don’t know that “Marry Me A Little” is so terribly wrong. I mean, historically, marriage wasn’t necessarily seen as one’s primary locus of relational sustenance. “Want me more than others, not exclusively” seems like it can often be a healthier approach to marriage. With the decline of serious friendship and the shift of relational expectation from friends to family, marriage-relationships end up having so much expected of them, I don’t know how many can really fulfill those expectations. I suspect this is connected to the phenomenal increase in divorce rates (though, of course, far from being the only factor) so much is expected of the spouse, they can’t really cope. It seems to me that even “Being Alive” is aware that it presents a model that may be dangerous; sure, there’s “alone is alone not alive,” but there’s also “Somebody hold me too close, somebody hurt me too deep, somebody need me too much.” It’s powerful artistically, but I’m not sure how prudent it is in a real life.

    Also, I’m really looking forward to reading your Sweeney piece!

    • My take was that “not exclusively” was rejecting the “forsaking all others” commitment of traditional marriage, not rejecting marriage as “one’s primary locus of relational sustenance.” In other words, rejecting open marriage rather than rejecting friendship.

      “Being Alive”‘s “too close” and “too deep”, on the other hand, are showing exactly that deep genuine relationships will necessarily involve self-denial, suffering, and the choice of placing the other ahead of oneself. To put the “prudence” of avoiding pain and difficulty ahead of giving oneself “for better or worse” to another is exactly to end up “alone not alive.” Dangerous, perhaps; but not nearly so dangerous as the alternative.

      I’m always impressed with the depth and resonance of Sondheim’s work. Even as uncomfortably 70s as “Company” can be, it doesn’t cease to speak today. “Passion” is one of the few Sondheim pieces I’ve not yet seen. (“Gypsy” is the other, I think.) Thanks for the link! And happy birthday, Leah!

      • What I meant was, the ironic subtext of the song rejects open marriage, rather than friendship. The “straight sense” of the song rejects exclusive marriage in favor of a sort of long-term acquaintanceship with benefits. (Of course, the “straight sense” of the song, it could be argued, is ironic, so…)

  • Pseudonym

    I’m still a little uncomfortable about John Barrowman. He’s a brilliant actor, especially in musical theatre. But his personal taste in music appears to be… uhm…

    Well, let me put it this way: He covered an Air Supply song. Here in Australia, that borders on a diplomatic incident.

  • Hibernia86

    I’m a big supporter of any relationship that is (to use the motto of one sexual/relationship subsection) “safe, sane, and consensual”. That doesn’t mean anything goes. For example adultery would be wrong because it isn’t consensual. You are lying to your spouse by trying to hide your activities. It would also be wrong to try to economically force someone into a relationship that they otherwise would never choose. Also it is wrong to put someone in a relationship that they wouldn’t choose if they had a fuller experience of the world, even if they are currently happy. For example, it is wrong to marry girls off in polygamous relationships in the FLDS church because they have been raised to see this as their only option and while they are happy with it, it is highly unlikely that they would be happy with it if they hadn’t grown up in the religious group. Polygamy/polyamory in liberal communities is okay, however, because those people fully understand what they are choosing. They weren’t raised in a community where that was their only option.

    I also agree with Joshua above. I think sometimes people have grown up on romantic stories and don’t understand that their spouse is an actual person which means that they won’t always be perfect. The couple will sometimes get into arguments and sometimes each person will be selfish. That unrealistic expectation might be in part what is fueling the 50% divorce rate. It is okay to dream. I myself do love the idea of two romantic lovers who care for each other completely and would die for each other, but I know that sometimes people lose the romantic spark. However that doesn’t mean that marriages are doomed. My parents, for example, have been married since 1979, the only marriage for both of them in their lives. They almost never argue. They don’t do very many romantic things but their lives do fit together like clockwork. They work together excellently as a team.

    • Ted Seeber

      You sound really Catholic there in a liberal sort of way- the expectation that people aren’t perfect in particular; after all, the Church is a Hospital for Sinners, not a Resort Town With Amusement Park for Saints.

      One of the big reasons I’ve been married for 13+ years is because I went in NOT expecting my wife to be perfect- and she, me.

  • OK, can I be the outrageous guy who gets invited to the symposium so that the other speakers have someone to disagree with?

    As an entry point to my rant, children basically don’t feature in that musical. And I don’t just mean none appear on stage (I wouldn’t advocate child-labor), they seem to be very distant even in theory. When Robert visits Jenny and David* they mention in passing they need to keep quiet so as not to awake the kids. For Peter and Susan the kids are one of several reasons why they can’t live separate lives post-divorce. There are a few mentions of children in the songs but basically as nag-scapegoats, babysitting objects or jokes. And as far as I remember that’s it for a two-hour musical about marriage. Effectively children seem like a peripheral aspect of what boring people do when they settle down, but never as anything to be thought about when considering marriage.

    Even aside of my reactionary Catholic views on the relationship of marriage and children I think this is symptomatic. Some other joint project might take the place of children e.g. if a couple turns out infertile. And I understand how one could see that as an equally good option rather than a substitute.

    But in Company there is no trace of that either. Marriage is presented as being about what the title says: company. And then the difference to friendship is basically just intensity. In “Marry Me a Little” Robert wants that company to be shallow and cheap. At the end in “Being Alive” he wants it to involve a deeper investment of self, a commitment, an effect on his self-definition, and the vulnerability that goes along with that. If we take the scene before, with his looking for someone to take care of, he may even have realized it’s in part about sacrifice. I suppose that’s progress. But ultimately it’s still just a change in how much of the same he wants. His idea of marriage is still about two people looking at each other with no trace of looking at anything else together. There’s no room for marriage as an institution in this view, because making it so strictly about two people basically excludes any outside interest by definition. And it gets worse: If marriage differs from friendship mainly in intensity, friendship becomes an inferior good. So the reality-branch in which Robert gains a “true” marital intention is the branch in which he jilts his friends at the surprise party. Basically Robert’s progress is from solipsism to duopsism and that’s just not far enough.

    Of course this post-modern view of marriage is particularly easy to fall into in a world where marriage no longer involves a phase-change in behavior. April’s butterfly story probably still includes some awareness that casual sex is hurtful, but ultimately in the musical as in the real world it’s assumed an unquestionable given. Which makes sense in a perverse way, because if marriage isn’t really a thing the difference between married and unmarried isn’t either.

    Comparative sanity gets a two-minute hearing, but it never rises to Robert’s attention and doesn’t even get a song. As with the butterfly story, it’s subtle enough to not offend the hippies. I’m talking, of course, of Kathy in the park. She’s wasn’t necessarily always aware of being out of place in New York (as she says, there’s a time to come to New York and a time to leave) but she has matured and realized it’s wrong. I think Musical!New York is basically Marta’s vision of it, so returning to Cape Cod is a rejection of a world-view. Going back to Cape Cod in order to marry is basically rejecting the shallow variant that passes for marriage in New York.

    There is a bitter note in her evading the question whether she loves the guy she will marry. But I still would have more hope for her marriage than for Robert’s. Of course it’s normally not a particularly good idea to marry without romantic spark. But still, love is primarily a virtue and only secondarily an emotion. With work and character-building the emotion may be producible in the long term, as it was in arranged marriages of old. The emotion is much less effective at inducing the virtue, and without the latter the former will die off in the long term. Also, I’m over-interpreting now, but maybe Kathy wants Robert to make her the kind of offer he made to Amy. And it’s telling he won’t make it to her despite the setup making it look like he would end up with her before she drops the bomb. Kathy just means something different when she talks of marriage than Robert does. And she is getting closer to the truth, while Robert just digs deeper.

    * I did watch the thing, but now I’m cheating by looking up names on the omniscient landfill. If the names are production-dependent I might be referring to the wrong ones.

  • evetushnet

    I can’t believe it took me a full day to come up with an alternative title for this post: “Dr. Thurible’s Sing-Along Blog.”
    Incorrigible punster–do not incorrige, etc….

    • deiseach

      I am incensed by that pun 🙂

      • This is only vaguely apropos, but so awesome I’ll take any excuse to link to it.

  • As someone who has been told that no one is a bigger Sondheim fan than myself, here is my two cents. (I am very embarrassed to admit I have never seen Passion, but it’s REALLY hard to track down.)
    Company is a great musical that raises good questions without providing any definitive answers. In response to Gilbert, I believe the musical is much more ambiguous in its conclusion and regarding marriage than you interpreted. Sondheim said that one main purpose of Comapny was to take the problems that many quarreling couples face and force them to reflect on them rather than providing a means for escape as most other musicals do. It does not present a solution other than a reminder that marriage is a commitment and a struggle that requires work from both parties. Yes, the absence of children and marriage as an institution is problematic, but the focus is on the commitment among the couples.
    Marriage is definitely presented as something more than mere company. “Marry Me a Little” at the end of act 1 espouses the view that marriage is merely a more intense relationship between close friends. “Being Alive” at the end of act 2 acknowledges the importance of sacrifice and unity between the couple. Whether or not Bobby is capable of marriage is open to interpretation at the end. As much as he wants to settle down, his trepidation and pleasure-driven affairs may have made that impossible. When April says she’ll stay at the end of “Barcelona,” his response is “Oh, God!” Bobby tells Joanne that he wants a committed two way relationship, but there is no definitve scene to suggest he achieves one. When Bobby stands up his friends at his surprise birthday, he is left alone. Whether he is alone with April or by himself is debatable.

    Leah – I’ll respond to your Sweeney Todd essay after I’ve had a little more time to reflect on it. I agree with much of it, but there are some parts that I interpret quite differently.

    • leahlibresco

      I’m looking forward to it!

    • I would like to add that in the original tryout ending Bobby concluded marriage was just a more intense relationship between two friends, and that was a version of hell. An epilogue then showed him depressed and alone desperately trying to find connection. Hal Prince said this ending was too dark and too long, and he made Sondheim rewrite it. Here is the original song that closed the musical instead of “Being Alive.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYUi80P5OYw

  • Re: Sweeney Todd. In writing this, I realized that I agree with almost all of your paper. My one major disagreement is your interpretation of Todd’s motives for his actions.

    First of all, your analysis of Mrs. Lovett is spot-on perfect. I also love your description of the atmosphere of Todd’s London as well as the function of the chorus throughout the musical. And of course I agree that Lahr has missed the message of the show.

    I can totally see where the “crypto-Catholic” response came from. Your main thesis is that Todd is a moral hero in a dystopian world because he lays down his physical and spiritual life for his daughter’s safety. My problem, as a Catholic, is that one may never do evil to achieve good, and the destruction of the soul is evil. I view Todd as an anti-hero and see his character arc as much more tragic. His path is akin to that of Macbeth or Michael Corleone in The Godfather I & II.

    Sondheim said that he had two reasons for writing the show. One: he wanted to see if he could frighten a modern theatre audience. Two: he believes that revenge is a universal evil, which he wanted to expose as tragic (“everyone does it and seldom as well”). The initial tryout production was much more of a horror musical. Due to a poor response from the audience, the jokes were added as comic relief, primarily in “A Little Priest,” and other mildly humorous elements were exaggerated.

    At the end of the show, I do not think that Todd has achieved any sort of victory. He set out to destroy the malevolent Judge Turpin and in the process turned into something just as evil. The Judge condemns a young boy to death and exiles an innocent man, as Todd kills his customers. None of their victims deserved such a fate. The Judge destroyed Lucy and subjected Johanna to his evil lustful desires by trying to marry her. He then exposed her to more evil by locking her in the asylum. Todd actually kills Lucy and then exposes Johanna to his lust for blood. No, she does not learn Todd’s identity, but she is much more horrified by his bloodshed than anything she suffered at Judge Turpin’s hands. According to the libretto, Johanna is shocked by Turpin’s threats, but she has a mini-breakdown when she views the bake house.

    I also do not think that Todd is *fully* aware that his vengeance makes him unfit to see his daughter. Once he has killed the Judge, he sings to his razors: “Rest now, my friend,/Rest now forever./Sleep now the untroubled/Sleep of the angles…” Here he thought he could put his killing aside without consequence (achieve untroubled sleep) once he had achieved his vengeance. His earlier killings were “practice on less honorable throats,” and he does not think they will affect him either. If Todd had been fully aware that his vengeance perverted his own soul, he would not have been horrified by Lucy’s murder, and he would not have taken his wrath out on Mrs. Lovett.

    At the same time, Todd is aware of the effect of his murders to the extent that he knows murder has replaced his daughter and his wife as the source of joy in his life: “And my Lucy lies in ashes/And I’ll never see my girl again,/But the work waits,/I’m alive at last/And I’m full of joy!” Is he aware that he is unfit to see Johanna because of this choice? No, he is proclaiming his priorities have shifted and he now chooses murder over his family. In a dramatic turn around, murder literally trumps his family at the end.

    I agree with you that Todd is deliberately distancing himself from his daughter, but I do not think he makes those choices out of love for her, but our of a desire to please himself by destroying the Judge. Ultimately Todd’s wrath-driven desire to make himself happy fails completely, because Todd (not the Judge) destroyed what he most cared about.

    Here is a description from the libretto regarding the Act II “Johanna:”
    “Throughout the song, Todd remains benign, wistful, dream-like. What he sings is totally detached from the action, as is he. He sings to the air.” (Sweeney Todd Libretto, p. 155)
    To emphasize Todd has slipped away from reality, the accompaniment is only two alternating chords that mechanically pulsate, suggesting Todd’s trance-like state. The melody also never resolves but floats up and down the scale while ending on inconclusive scale degrees. Todd is unaware of the disconnect between his murders and his supposed love for Johanna; he cannot see the irony of this scene. There is no indication he ever see his choices as morally wrong, and if he does, he does not care. The libretto even says Todd goes completely insane by the time he sings “Epiphany.” The second act of the musical is the result of that insanity induced by Todd’s preoccupation with vengeance.

    I interpret Sweeney Todd as a cautionary tragedy about the destructive nature of revenge, and Sweeney is an anti-hero who gives his life over to a deadly sin.

    Little longer than I intended, but there you go.

  • Deacon Greg Kandra

    I’m a Sondheim, fan, too! Leah, I’m curious what you thought of Tim Burton’s idea of eliminating the chorus in the movie version? I thought it a misstep in an otherwise effective (and very very bloody) treatment. It seems to me that removing the voices of the mob removed, as well, a sense of the culture’s role in the murder and madness. (And it took away that great Brechtian ballad to frame the story!) Also, as a viewer, I think we need those choral numbers to give us a break.

    Dcn. G.