DYING to Make a Point - Sondheim and His Themes of DEATH
Since I have started writing this blog, I've spent a great deal of time examining lyrics, several of which have been the terrific, insightful words of Stephen Sondheim. As I have been absorbing and cross-referencing, I have been noticing a recurring theme of death throughout most of his work. Death as part of emotional survival, death as part of losing one's self, impending death as part of an urgent warning for action, and actual physical death as life draws to a close. This is not to assert that Sondheim is maudlin, morose, or fixated, but it is arresting to explore how he uses themes of death to underscore the trials of life.
Sondheim's attention to slow, emotional death shows up several times throughout his writing career. One of the finest examples is "Everyday a Little Death" from A Little Night Music. Sung by Countess Charlotte Malcolm and Anne Egerman as they ruminate over their husbands' infidelities, they recount their spiritual demise as they are forced to suffer humiliation after humiliation. Marital indiscretions aren't killing them all at once, but rather, with each day, they feel it like a multitude of small pin-pricks that eventually grow into something larger, something infected, something that will eventually transform them into mere ghosts in the world they live. They see it everywhere: "in the curtains, in the silver, in the buttons, in the bread." The other glaring example is in "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along. Beth, the wife of the uber-successful songwriter and producer Franklin Shepard, has found that her marriage no longer works and, despite the fact that she still feels affection for the man, she must come to terms with the fact that, until she dies, she will "die day after day after day after day after day" if she stays with him. Sondheim makes some really clear points exploring the theme of death in both of these songs. People can die slowly. People can have a small part of themselves killed each day of their life if their resolve and spirit are chipped away by someone who is emotionally murdering them.
Death and the legacy we leave behind is also an important theme of Sondheim musicals. In Into the Woods, the Mysterious Man and his son the Baker both realize the consequences of the messes they have made when they left those they love behind without resolving the issues that have long term consequences. In "No More" the Mysterious Man says "We disappoint, we leave a mess, we die but we don't." and his son responds "We disappoint in turn, I guess, forget though we won't." This speaks directly to the musical's theme "Careful the things you say, children will listen...careful the spell you cast, not just on children. Sometimes a spell may last past what you can see and turn against you." This is parental responsibility, what happens when we die, and how we cannot undo the mistakes once we are gone. Love and impact beyond death carries into Passion and through the character of Fosca. A dying woman with a multitude of illnesses that never allowed her to have a fulfilled life, Fosca obsesses over a man who probably does not love her. She identifies the young soldier Gorgio as her one hope that she might live on in the lyric "And should you die tomorrow, another thing I see. Your love will live in me." Granted, she is the one who is going to die, but she is projecting here. She is seeing love as something that supersedes death. and, through her ever-mounting guilt trip, desperately makes the plea for her own survival by letting him know that she would do the same for him. If he were to go first, she'd carry the love he gave her in her heart. Why can't he do the same for her?
Actual death permeates the musicals Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods, with characters dying left and right. Whether it be Sweeney's rage of murders growing out of his beloved wife's rape and supposed death, or the fear that grows through fairytale land as characters are picked off one-by-one by an enormous giant. This is justified death. These murders and fatal accidents are retribution for the morally corrupt and those who don't follow the rules. Sondheim (with his collaborators) use the theme of death as the ultimate consequence of life choices. The musical Assassins does the same thing, putting the gavel of judgment into the hands of those who have been disenfranchised, and who, with the compulsions of lunacy for retribution, swing that gavel with a mighty thrust (to varying results).
Isn't it impending death that thrusts the musical Follies? The death of vaudeville, the aging of its performers, the need to still be of consequence in a world that has essentially forgotten those who have grown too old to register as still relevant? "I'm Still Here" is a song of survival, overcoming all types of death (actual, career, financial, spiritual) by insisting reinvention of one's self as the only means of survival. These are people at the end of their lives, looking back and realizing that the best has passed. Are they already ghosts?
Sondheim has created so many colorful and haunting images of death in his musicals, using the theme, in a way, as a celebration of life or, rather, as the antithesis of obscurity. Death has strength. Death comes is myriad forms. Death is a motivator. The specter of death either kills us, or more likely, sustains us through our need for survival. It is the grandest of juxtapositions: life and death. The two wrestle and we all know who eventually wins, but Sondheim finds a way to make it an interesting battle to the very end.