No one is alone / But alone is alone, not alive
April 17, 2014
"INTO THE WOODS" at the Théâtre du Châtelet, April 6, 2014.
"Nobody goes through life unscathed, and I think if you write about those things, you're going to touch people."
— Stephen Sondheim
Into the Woods. sigh. Stephen Sondheim. sigh. Theater. sigh. Theater! Theater, man!
A couple of days ago, I had a great conversation with someone (bonus points! pat on the back! tooting my own horn! I'm trying to install some kind of self-congratulatory gold-star system everytime this sort of thing happens, since it happens so seldom, because social anxiety and agoraphobia and panic attacks and all that fun, fun stuff. So, yay me.), about theater and musicals and performing arts in general. And... it was probably the first time I ever told someone, out loud, plainly and openly, that my dream was to work in the theater. It felt so strange on the moment, but strange more in the this-is-unusual-and-I-don't-know-how-to-feel-about-it-yet way, than the I-want-to-run-away-from-this-conversation-and-hide-in-a-cave-forever. Of course, this bout of honesty from my part was not spontaneous, in that as our little group was riding the subway and taking turn opening up about dream careers and aspirations, someone told that they wanted to work in the theater, potentially in set design and building. If I were a normal human being who knew how to express emotion and voice feelings I probably would have jumped out of my seat, squealed, yelled, high-fived him, and lead him into a enthusiastic exchange about our common goal. I smiled instead and said nothing. But I somehow felt the slightest bit comfortable, when my turn came, to admit it. It. The "it" that I often refer to but never quite admit. The "it" that I brush off as silly, lie about when asked what I want to do in my life (more like, with my life). Still, in the presence of a like-minded character, it didn't feel as ridiculous to my ears, and mostly, because no one in the assembly was my parent or my relative or someone who's known me for a long time, it didn't seem ridiculous to them — if it did, no one let it show, and for that I'm grateful. Cut to several moments later, when we got to talking more in depth about the theater in general, and oh boy, did it desperately make me crave a friend who was that into theater. I probably got more out of this one-hour conversation than, I don't know, probably months worth of meaningless — well, not necessarily meaningless, but at least more trivial — encounters. It's the simplest thing, really. To connect with someone because of shared interests. But it felt so good.
"Connect, George. Connect." Right?
So to find that one person with whom I shared not only a common interest, but a common pursuit, made me feel more hopeful, and possibly more eager, something that was only reinforced after I saw the newest production of the Théâtre du Châtelet two days after, the one, the only, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into The Woods. I can't even begin to wrap my head around that wonderful, wonderful, magical (no pun intended) gem of a show, and how I had perhaps what was the opposite of a nervous breakdown during "No One Is Alone"? There were tears, and shaking, and bawling, and it was all very embarrassing, but it lifted me up in a way only the most heartbreaking Sondheim songs about loneliness and isolation can. I have never seen live productions of either Sunday in the Park with George or Company, but I assume I would be as much a mess during "Move On", "Final Sunday", and "Being Alive". I want to make things that count. ... Anything you do, let it come from you. ... White: a blank page, or canvas. His favorite – so many possibilities. You've got so many reasons for not being with someone, you haven't got one good reason for being alone. Someone you have to let in, someone who, like it or not, will want you to share a little, a lot. Someone to crowd you with love, someone to force you to care, someone to make you come through, who'll always be there, as frightened as you of being alive. But alone is alone, not alive. Just remember, someone is on your side. Hard to see the light now, just don't let it go. No one is alone, believe me. No one is alone.
I've tried to pinpoint the single moment where I realized that I wanted to work in the theater, where I realized that being part of a company in New York, belonging in a community akin to the theater community was the thing that I wanted more than anything. I haven't found it. It creeps up you, like when a song comes on and you just got to sing or dance. I don't know when it hit me. I know that I harbored a secret love for performing during my twelve-year stint in the conservatory, even when I put on an I-hate-everyone-and-everything pout right before a show and complained about having to wear a dress. I know that I missed it so much when I left. Rehearsals in the auditorium, backstage shenanigans, waiting in the wings to come on, performing on stage, taking a bow. The adrenaline, the heart racing, clammy, trembling hands. Feeling like I was part of something great. Well, not that great, but something creative, at least. Something empowering, and fulfilling. I know I felt so invigorated when I experienced what I like to call my "Theater Re-naissance", literally, after years of exclusively reading fiction/nonfiction novels and the like, discovering Tony Kushner's Angels in America, a monument of a play that set off a spark somewhere in my brain and in my whole being. Like there somehow is a before-Kushner me and an after-Kushner me, however silly that sounds. I don't think I understood theater, I don't think I got theater, the language of it, the beauty of it, the completeness of it, the purity of it, what it was and what it could be, the potential of the stage, before reading Angels in America. The irony may lie in my never having seen an actual production of it, on stage anyway. But if there was ever a play that succeeded in translating drama on the page, and making the reader feel like they were capable of grasping the life out of these words, this play is it. And so, that fateful combination of an extraordinary play, read at the right time and with the right mindset — I think... that's when I fell madly, deeply, head over heels, in love with the theater. I know I became more and more in love with the theater with every play I read after that. I know I was losing my mind because I could not believe there were people writing characters like Laura Wingfield, plays like Doubt and Long Day's Journey Into Night. And I know I credit Mr. Kushner for my "theater awakening," if there is such a thing. But discovering Stephen Sondheim was something else entirely. Coming across the "greatest lyricist of all time" tends to do that to you. Even so, I feel that his lyrics are some of the least pretentious and showy in musical theater, and in general, for how famous their author is, and how recognizable they are. But it's not even the point, and I'm going off on a tangent talking about pretentiousness and whatnot, which is probably my least favorite topic when it comes to defining art/auteurship etc. because I feel like it all ties into the same issue of criticism and subjectivity and who cares whether some work is overrated or underrated or more critically acceptable than something else. Comments like these reek of vanity and ego and tend to draw attention not on the actual work of art but on the commentator. Ha, speaking of tangents. I'm rambling because I don't know how to write about Stephen Sondheim without rambling. He is just so much, too much, isn't he. In his work, in his life, in his process. It seems like his songs are equal part a celebration of life, and the expression of utter loneliness. He allows both to exist at the same time, in the same songs, sometimes even in the same lines ("Somebody, force me to care." I could write about this single, simple line forever). His melodies are puzzles but his lyrics are, in a way, so simple, so clear. But it's his ability to write about loneliness, about anxieties, about isolation, that makes his work so important, to me at least. And his characters often do not have to deal with loneliness because of parental abandonment or lost love, although that may come into play in some form or another, but because they are lonely people. They are people who, for some reason, cannot connect in ways that feel easy or come naturally to them, even with the people that they care the most about or that care the most about them. They are people who can devote themselves wholly and passionately to their work, but cannot do the same with other human beings. They are people who are not oblivious to their inability to connect, and it is in that awareness that lies their greatest sadness. I know I cannot. I wish. I know. And I guess I haven't encountered these kinds of characters much elsewhere. Laura Wingfield is one, and her existence alone is what makes me love Tennessee Williams and I will fight anyone who says she is a throwaway character, and a laughable one at it, to death. The Glass children, especially Franny and maybe Buddy are others who deal with isolation in a different kind of environment, and under vastly different circumstances. "Mad Men" is a show about loneliness. And the character of Amy on Parenthood has had one magnificent episode who was probably not conceived nor reviewed as a study on college loneliness and depression, but it was so on point, and such a well-made, though tiny, storyline, that yes, it does count. And my favorite movie of the year so far, Her, and its main character Theodore Twombly, are this decade's Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation, staring at labyrinths of concrete from bay windows overlooking a city, laying in bed, their lives repeated sequences set to ethereal soundtracks (hell, two tracks from Arcade Fire's stunning score are called "Loneliness"). This last sentence sounded like I was sarcastically dissing both movies and this is absolutely not my intent. I'm always dubious when the amount of tears an audience member sheds is used as a selling point (I'm looking at you, nbcparenthood twitter feed), first because it treats the audience as a homogeneous mass to be manipulated when everyone reacts to things differently depending on the baggage that they bring with them to a movie theater, and tears are as much a commentary on the viewer than on the work displayed itself; second because contrary to popular belief, tears are not the only gauge of emotional reaction. A person not crying doesn't mean they are coldhearted. A person crying does not mean they are more caring or sympathetic. Different strokes for different folks. But if that's any indicator, and I don't even know why I'm mentioning it after debunking my whole argument, but I probably haven't cried this hard and this much during a movie screening than when I watched Where the Wild Things Are for the first time, five years ago (the only comparable experience would have to be seeing Blue Valentine at the Angelika Film Center). Damn you, Spike Jonze. Damn you. All this to say that yes, there have been other accurate depictions of loneliness in art and in the media, certainly in literature and on film. But there is something unique to Sondheim's approach to it. I don't even know where I'm going with it, my intent is not to try and pit Sondheim against other people or other works against his, I think it would be silly to try and compare, let alone say with whatever authority I have (zero) that he is superior, to what I don't even know. I guess what I'm trying to do is write what Sondheim means to me. And I'm failing. But that's okay. I don't think you're meant to have a clear, decipherable relationship with your artistic hero/role model/inspiration/see, I don't even know what to call that one artist you value if not above all else, then above a lot else. In his review for HBO's wonderful documentary Six by Sondheim, directed and co-produced by James Lapine , Vulture's Matt Zoller Seitz writes, "Sondheim's work has probably meant more to me over the years than any other theater artist, and I'm certainly not alone in that sentiment." I believe that multiplicity does not kill specialness. So. I guess I shall go back to my initial thesis, which was, "Yay Stephen Sondheim: Yay Theater. Exclamation Point." Oh boy. Is it next year already that I have to hand in my thesis?
The weird thing is that I haven't seen that many plays. I haven't seen that many productions of anything, just a handful. And apart from that one time the girl I was understudying (to be fair, I was kind of covering every part with two other girls because we were the only ones left without actual roles, and there was no piano part in the orchestra, so, yay chorus) went away on vacation and I had to come on as a dwarf, I think, dressed literally in a potato sack, I haven't done that much theater. I've read a lot of theater, I can tell you that much, but if there's anything we can all agree upon it's that theater is not meant to be read alone in your room. Sure, you can act all the part. And there are unplayable plays (looking at you, Lorenzaccio). But it's just not. And it's certainly not what I want to get out of the theater. I want to be surrounded by engaged, enthusiastic, passionate people, craftsmen and artists and technicians who are all there because they love the work. It sounds so dumb but it's a big, big part of why I want to ultimately work in the theater. Yes, I love plays, I love seeing the sets and the costumes and the lighting, I love watching something slowly come to life. But there's something so endearing about feeling like you're part of a community. I guess it's every lonely kid's secret wish, to be invited in, to be part of the club, to feel like you belong. To be included. Ah, the sweet smell of... company (why don't I have any friends? Oh, yeah, BAD, UNINTENTIONAL PUNS). Alone is not alive. Connect, George. Connect.