Sunday, December 31, 2017

Churchill, the End of 2017, and Darkest Hour

For the end of 2017, a film and its book companion Finest Hour about Winston Spencer Churchill make a fitting prism for personal reflection.

The actor Gary Oldman, director Joe Wright, and writer Anthony McCarten have beautifully portrayed a character who's practically a member of my family.   Memoirs by and about him lay around our home;  Mom and Dad admired him and referred to him often; I went to Winston Churchill Elementary School in Homewood, Illinois, 1966-1969; I lived off of Churchill Rd. in Jackson, MS; the first dog I adopted in my adult life was named Churchill; and my first several years in education were spent finding a way to make Sir Winston's History of the English-Speaking Peoples accessible to 13-year-olds in Mississippi.  For my students, I wrote a biography of WSC, alongside biographies of Hitler and FDR.  A fifty-pound clay bust of the man, gift from a colleague in Mississippi, still presides over my classroom.  I know the subject well.

Winston Churchill in many ways bears comparison to our current U.S. President.  I've often observed that WSC was a perpetual adolescent, mischievous, fond of secret strategems, liable to disappear underwater in his bath while he dictated to his secretary.   In the movie, he's viewed as erratic, "delusional."  In the book, he's also labeled "narcissistic." Unlike the current President, however, he was also voraciously curious and deeply aware of history.

McCarten follows daily events May 1940, but structures the story on three speeches that Sir Winston gave that month.  We get to see what goes into each speech through intense encounters with politicians and military advisers. In the first one, his "blood, toil, tears, and sweat" speech, Churchill proclaims, "Our policy is victory at all costs," but he seems to be spitting into the wind.  In the second, a radio address, his upbeat assessment of the situation in France is pronounced "delusional" and he admits to shielding the public from the dark truth of the situation.  Things get considerably darker before he gathers his wits and strength for the third speech.

During each of the speeches, we get close-ups of the seething, silent Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and the man Churchill replaced, former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), the one who proclaimed that his agreement with Hitler had ensured "peace in our time."  Writer McCarten stacks the deck in favor of Lord Halifax, who appeals to common sense regarding Hitler's superior forces, and also tearfully appeals to sympathy for the men who will be sacrificed by Churchill's blithe command to "stop Hitler."  Halifax says exactly what we in the audience see:  Hitler is invincible, the good guys are powerless, and it's time to save the children and everyone else by making peace with him.

[Photo collage:  Actor Gary Oldman, left, and his remarkable transformation into Churchill, lower right.  Upper right: Kristin Scott Thomas and Oldman tete a tete as "Clemmy" and "Pig" ]

For a private view of Churchill, the creators of the film give us his interactions with two women, his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).  Through his private dialogues with them, we see the personal agony and uncertainty as WSC chooses between the certain loss of 4000 men in Calais, the expected loss of 300,000 men in Dunkirk, and the option of coming to terms with Hitler. In scenes between Churchill and Clementine, he calls her "Clemmy" and she calls him "Pig."  The two are flirtatious, witty, adolescent, and combative. She sums up his whole life when she recasts his doubts and the many failures in his decades of public life as the very qualities that make him the right leader for the moment.

Typing the man's words, the secretary Layton helps us to appreciate what goes into each of those speeches.  Sometimes he rumbles with an avalanche of clauses, and sometimes he rambles, paralyzed by uncertainty.  Her own agony over a brother in battle touches Churchill.  We also get to see what I'd read about in her real-life account of those times, how he'd give dictation to her from the bathtub and wander around au naturel.

King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) sides with Halifax and Chamberlain early in the film.  But, looking out from Buckingham Palace at London blacked-out, the King comes to appreciate Churchill's defiance of Hitler.  In a scene meant to contrast his first meeting with Churchill, when Churchill approaches stiffly through a vast Palace hallway for a stiff formal kiss of the King's hand,  the King calls on Churchill at home, sitting beside the rumpled Prime Minister in a dark garret where Churchill seems to have retreated, and says, simply, "You have my support."

At the titular "darkest hour," Churchill gathers strength from "the people" and calls the secretary to help him dash together the third speech, one that really did turn the tide.  The United Kingdom was unprepared to fight Hitler, but, in a phrase that writer Anthony McCarten borrows from an obituary for WSC in 1965, Churchill "mobilized the English language and sent it into battle."  McCarten writes in his book, "With words, Churchill changed the political mood and shored up the nervous will of a shaking people" (intro, xi).  The unexpected defiance of Prime Minister, Parliament, and the public gave Hitler pause, just long enough for WSC and FDR to cobble together a military defense.

It's a lovely movie that made me cry and laugh in equal measure - as did the year 2017.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Privilege is Mine

Me at 5, a little prince
A man in that white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last fall told NPR's reporter that Christian white males are "the most endangered species in America today."  I agree that men of European descent are now under scrutiny for our privileges, and that people of other backgrounds are standing up to insist that their lives, too, matter.

But those developments, long overdue, hardly matter when I walk into any public place.  I'm a medium-small white guy with glasses, age 58.  Whether I wear khakis and a tie, or jeans and a tee, I'm protected, connected, respected: in a word, privileged.

For example, when I entered different car-repair establishments one week last fall, better-dressed black men behind the counters straightened and smiled. In each place, those same men were wary of a casually-dressed black man who passed through the same doors moments after me. 

With my privilege comes confidence. I gulped when they told me the cost of repairs, one-third of my savings, but I recovered quickly. My assets include mutual funds, a retirement fund, and my house. Should all that go away, I still can expect a share of Dad's estate.

Now, I have worked hard for what I've got, but I'm aware that others also worked hard for what I've got.  Mom and Dad both had full time jobs to pay my tuition to a prestigious school, where well-connected teachers got me a scholarship to Duke with their recommendations.  The school network kept giving: for each teaching position I've held, a phone call from a well-connected friend moved my file to the top of a pile of applications.  I humbly acknowledge that I deserved those good recommendations, but I'm aware that others who sent their applications must have worked just as hard.

[Photo: Graduation, with Mom and Dad, May 1981, at the door of my first apartment. I'd already signed the contract for my first teaching position.]

The network I was born into helped me to build my net worth.  A lawyer friend of my parents helped me, while I recovered from an accident, to get a settlement that I invested in mutual funds.  My retirement fund comes from my generous employers.  My current home is worth more than my previous two homes, combined; but I got it with help from some crazy loans before the sub-prime lending bubble burst; house number two was bought cheap, one of Mom's investment properties; and I couldn't have qualified for my starter home without Dad's guarantee, sale of my uncle's stocks, and going in 50-50 with my brother.

The network isn't just wide; it's deep, reaching back decades.  Mom and Dad got their starter house in 1963 with loans from my uncle; the same uncle helped Dad buy the little business that Dad worked so hard to build up.  One hot summer night, when Dad and I were carrying hundreds of pounds of iron castings in buckets of hot acid across a slippery concrete floor, Dad quipped around midnight, "I got my PhD so I wouldn't have to work this hard."  My uncle, in turn, built his business from a small restaurant started by his father-in-law during the 1920s.

That young man in Charlottesville would probably say how this just proves that it's not privilege, but a strong work ethic, that earned me such advantages: True!  But I'm also aware that, during the same decades that my relatives built up all that value, discrimination against people of color was official federal government policy and unofficial social practice. Up to the Fair Housing Act of the mid-1960s, Black families faced higher hurdles to get loans, and were officially "red-lined" to be segregated near garbage dumps and factory fumes;  existing neighborhoods were intentionally bisected by the new interstate highways.  Their starter houses were dead ends. Add more than a century of official and unofficial racial discrimination for hiring, schools, and incarceration: I've started way ahead of others whose families worked just as hard.

I'm also aware of the black men who got a different treatment at those service desks where I was treated like a prince.  I used to be puzzled that an imposing black man, father of a boy in my class, always wore a suit, even to a middle school basketball game, even on a Saturday night.  I learned why, when another black man on NPR explained that he'd wear dress shoes and a suit to town on Saturday, because even other black people presume he's dressed for purse-snatching if he's wearing running shoes.

We don't have to be "racist" to place a burden on our friends of color.  An earnestly well-intentioned student, discussing black poet Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B,"  said that Hughes wanted us to understand that a black man was "just like a normal person."  

My privilege is something I wear that opens doors to me, a protective aura, a network that guarantees my net worth.  As others are finding ways to build the same networks, demanding to be presumed innocent, credible, friendly and intelligent until proven otherwise, I don't feel endangered.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Tony Bennett's Just Getting Started: Joyful, Thankful

Tributes to Tony Bennett's mentors have been piling up in my music library since the 1990s - the singer's recordings of music associated with Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, and his collaborations with Bill Evans and Lady Gaga.

Bennett's Thanks for Others
No surprise, tributes to those musicians are among those collected in Just Getting Started. Written with NPR host Scott Simon, the book is Bennett's memoir, 91 years ingeniously meted out among 42 appreciative profiles of musicians, actors, writers, and family, with a lesson he learned from each person (or place -- his grandparents' home in "rural" Queens, for instance).

But Bennett springs some surprises in his memoir. (Tony Bennett with Scott Simon.  Just Getting Started.  Harper Collins. Kindle edition, November 2016.)

His long appreciation of Frank Sinatra alludes to "another side of his character" that Bennett knew only through gossip in the press.  To Bennett, Sinatra was kind and courteous, bestowing invitations and one heckuva compliment that catapulted Bennett from being just one of many crooners to being Sinatra's heir apparent: "For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business.  He excites me when I watch him.  He moves me.  He's the singer who gets across what the composer has in mind, and probably a little more" (quoted from Life magazine, April 23, 1965).

Sinatra makes a surprising appearance in a chapter about Judy Garland.  A little woman under five feet tall, a child star who'd never had a childhood, Garland's appeal was due to her genuine vulnerability, Bennett says, even more than it was due to her vocal power and interpretive skills.  "When she came out onstage -- small as a wounded bird but with that huge, gorgeous voice that reached the back of the house -- everyone wanted to take care of her."  Bennett tells about taking an urgent call from Garland just before he went onstage in London.  She was in London, too, and pleading for Bennett's help, because a man she had invited to her hotel room was beating her up.  Bennett tells us, "Some people would have called the cops.  I went one better: I called Frank Sinatra."  After his set, Bennett checked in with Garland, who laughed, "I wanted help, but this is ridiculous! ...There are nine hundred cops downstairs and five lawyers in my room."

Bennett includes a chapter on Abraham Lincoln, because, "Hasn't every American been influenced by Abraham Lincoln?"  Bennett, whose paintings of landscapes and still life arrangements conclude every chapter of the book, sees "the very face of America" in photos of Lincoln.  Bennett applies his singer's sensibility to the Gettysburg Address, analyzing it as he would a song.  "[Lincoln] begins with a phrase that draws you in and puts what follows into a rolling tide of a story. He sets up a rhythm and cadence... on his way to a shattering end."

Two chapters concern substance abuse that killed two of his collaborators.  "I loved Bill," Bennett tells us about the pianist Bill Evans, with whom he recorded the two albums he's most proud of in the mid-1970s. "A lot of people in show business (including me, I have to confess) used cocaine during that time, and we all kind of pretended with each other that it wasn't a problem... that drugs were just what creative people used to open their imagination...."  Evans's death by hepatitis, due ultimately to the needles he used for his addictions, was "an alarm bell" that scared Bennett straight.  He writes ecstatically of getting to know the young singer Amy Winehouse when they recorded "Body and Soul" for his Duets album, and tells how he wept when she died of alcohol poisoning.  He gives us good reasons why a word from him would have probably made no difference to her addiction, but concludes, "I said nothing on the day that I might have had a chance."

Silent film pioneer Charlie Chaplin gets a long biographical chapter in this singer's book, but not because Chaplin sent Bennett a rare gift as thanks for his recording of Chaplin's song "Smile."  It's because Bennett, strolling past Chaplin's home on Lake Geneva, hesitated "the better part of an hour" to knock on the door. "I guess I wondered how he would receive an uninvited visitor from the United States.  I guess I worried that he wouldn't recognize my name at first... I guess I just didn't want to disturb a great artist...."  So they never met. Bennett's missed opportunity to express his gratitude is a singular moment of regret.

My Thanks for Bennett

I'll take that cue from Bennett to express my thanks to him for his two albums with Bill Evans.  "You couldn't give them away at the time," he writes, and it's true.  In 1979, I was in New York to see Sweeney Todd.  I found the LPs at Colony Records on Broadway, a store famous for having music that one could find nowhere else.

I fancied myself a singing actor, an apprentice saloon singer, an aspiring pianist-composer.  I'd read with interest an article about Bennett that started, "The most underrated singer in America today is Tony Bennett.  Tony Bennett?! "  With that intro, the reporter acknowledged that Bennett was a dinosaur, repudiated by Boomers.  Compared to rock, folk, and soul, the polished American standards in Bennett's songbook were considered inauthentic.  But Bennett told this reporter the same thing that his mother tells him in the first chapter of his memoir, that he would stick to quality.  So Bennett had lost his contract at Columbia, and was gambling on his own recording company, called Improv.

In the article, Bennett claimed to have a new song written for him by Stevie Wonder.  He told the author something that doesn't show up in the memoir, how he would sing along with recordings of jazz pianists, "to learn their phrasing." I was intrigued.

Then I was disappointed.  Bennett's second album with Evans, Together Again, was the first one I heard.  His voice seemed gravelly, he strained for high notes, his New York accent distorted some syllables.  I was mystified by Evans' piano playing - understated, not flashy.  I wanted bass and drums, some "production values."  My friend Matt Hutchinson winced. "You can tell he has a good voice," Matt said, "but he's not using it, you know what I mean?"  I did.

But I'd had a similar experience listening to Cleo Laine, so I gave Bennett another listen.

What we hear on the album is exactly what my generation said we wanted, authenticity.  Bennett remembers,

It was one of the most intense musical experiences of my life.  I'd suggest a tune, and Bill would say, "Good, let's try that."  We'd find a key, than work it out note by note.  No take -- no measure -- was the same as the next.  Bill was always changing, jamming, winging it, and inviting me to come along.

You'd think you'd know a song...but Bill would turn it over, note by note, phrase by phrase.  It was like setting off on great expedition and never knowing what was around the next turn - but you couldn't wait to find out.

That joy in discovery, almost childlike excitement, comes across in Bennett's first song in the set, "Lucky to Be Me," music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.  To this day, that's the song that comes to mind when I'm happiest, and I hear Bennett and Evans when I sing it. The next song, lyrics by the same Comden and Green, with music by Jule Styne, is "Make Someone Happy," made a little sad, tinged by regret, in this performance.

Sometimes Bennett belted, sometimes he whispered.  I learned to hear expressiveness in the gravelly voice, energy in the reach for the high note, and color in the bend of a syllable. 

Just Thanks
Only once, in his appreciation of Duke Ellington, does Bennett speak of faith. Ellington told him that the Bible was the only book he ever read cover-to-cover, and the only one anyone needs to read.  Ellington drew the conclusion, "God is love."

It's synchronicity that, midway through reading Tony Bennett's tribute to his mentors Just Getting Started, I happened to hear a discussion of songs in the Bible, collected as the Psalms. The episode was called "Anatomy of Gratitude" for Krista Tippet's program On Being, and a monk Bennett's age, 93, discussed with her how the Psalms cover the full range of human emotions, yet often "choose" to be grateful.  "You can't be grateful for everything that happens," said her guest David Steindl-rast, "but you can be grateful for every moment."

There's pain in this book.  Bennett tells of unrelenting cold and horror, of arbitrary death in war -- and the unexpected gift of Bob Hope's USO performance.  He writes earnestly of Civil Rights struggles, and he records some indignities suffered by people he revered -- as when a white man mistook Count Basie for a valet after their Carnegie Hall triumph, and when Duke Ellington could not join Bennett in the club where both of them had just performed.  He tells us how, like every son, he saw his dad as strongest  man in the world, but how illness killed his dad when Tony was ten.

But Bennett chooses to be grateful: for others' generosity, for their wisdom, for Bennett's own opportunities, for his successes, for the principles to which he held during the lean years.

Thank you, Tony Bennett.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Square in Marietta: Far Enough

My takeaway from weeks in England, France, Italy, and Quebec is that other people live differently. We Americans take fast lanes to fast food on the way to consume the next entertainment.  The Old World way is to slow down, enjoy time with your family, get to know a place and its people.  That's what the Square in Marietta, Georgia, is for.

Twenty years ago today, my brother took this photo of his wife and children with me on "the Square," Marietta, Georgia.  I was on break from the school in Mississippi where I'd taught happily for 17 years.  At age 38, I had just determined to rejoin my family in the Atlanta area, to enjoy Mom and Dad's last healthy decade or two, and to be there when they'd need me;  to see my sister and brother-in-law; and to be the indulgent uncle nearby for the sibling niece and nephew (my "niblings").  At the moment of this picture, charmed by the breakfast cafe, the fountain, the park, the antebellum buildings, I had also decided to live somewhere near the Square. 

Plans change.  Only my sister and her husband are as they were then.  In just a year, my brother had moved his family a couple of hours south, then a couple of hours even farther south; Mom and Dad moved around 2005 to be near the grand kids.  Dad died in 2010; Mom came back up in 2012 to be around old friends, just as her memory of them slipped away.

In some ways, I'm not yet fitting into Marietta. Twenty years after I moved to the area, I still get lost.  Streets change their names (Roswell Street becomes South Park before it becomes Whitlock Avenue, all in sight of the Square, and then it morphs into Dallas Highway). No major streets go in straight lines, all routed around untouchable properties -- Lockheed plane factory, Dobbins Air Force Base, and a Civil War Battlefield Park with its nature trails through woods and meadows.  We call Highway 120 our "loop" in an aspirational way, as it isn't close to being circular, and it intersects itself.   I'm not sure where the sprawling town ends and surrounding towns of Kennesaw, Smyrna, Sandy Springs, Powder Springs, Dallas, and Hiram begin.  I'm pretty sure that "Marietta" encompasses one or two dozen "centers" of each type: medical, big box shopping, retirement, and sports -- including the new nationally known Suntrust Stadium.   We have a couple of performing arts centers, including a gorgeous home for the Atlanta Opera.

But the Square is one center with no duplicate, and all roads leading there now have newly-widened sidewalks lined with attractive brick, retro streetlamps with super-bright LED bulbs and safe crosswalks.  The closer one gets to the Square, the more houses one sees that are designated "historic," or else they're newly built in the style of the old ones.

[Above is a collage of personal images from the past year (clockwise from upper left):  Mom and Sassy at one of numerous cafes on Marietta's newly widened sidewalk; my buddy Jason's photo of me at the excavation where the scion of an old Marietta family wants an office building to tower over the square, and the city won't let him build it; my friend Susan's photo of me during one of our summer evenings at Shillings, a pub that used to be the hardware store; and Mom and Sassy again.]

Retro isn't an affectation; Marietta does have a history. From the Confederate Cemetery to the Gone With The Wind museum, from the railroads to the B-29 bomber that beat the Axis, from the infamous lynching of Leo Frank to the filming of Oprah's recent movie about Martin Luther King, Jr.   There's a restoration of the home of William Root, who helped build my church St. James Episcopal in 1847. (See photo above: North Park Avenue from the west end, and a shot of the same avenue from the east end, Strand Theatre the identifiable landmark in each view). 

My friends Susan and Suzanne, with whom I've spent dozens of great hours on the Square, both love to travel.  I'm surprised to find that the urge to fly away, once so strong in me, has totally disappeared. Suppose I go to some distant land: what's there to do, but take walks during the day, and, at evening, seek a clean, well-lighted place to have a cocktail, hear music, and read?

I can do all that right here.  The town sponsors concerts, "art walks," a winter skate park, annual art fairs, and weekly farmers' market.  (Below, clockwise from upper left: the Square, the fountain, national artists gathered at the annual "Chalktoberfest"; an aerial view looking west, with Kennesaw Mountain in the distance).  

Ten minutes away from the Square in my suburban subdivision, located on the edge of a Civil War battlefield, I still don't know my neighbors.  I'm the only person I ever see on our streets, as I walk my lovely Mia.

But the Square is always crowded with people of all ages; hair colors natural, tinted, or bald; bodies fat or fit; walking children or walking dogs; black, white, Hispanic, Asian. or Middle Eastern of descent.  For food, there's French, Italian, Mexican-Japanese fusion, Thai, "pub," gourmet Southern, Australian, Arabian, and pizza.  There are churches, Lord knows.  And every hour, late into the night, there's one of the trains that put this town on the map. Alongside the tracks, a new walkway-bike way passes from Kennesaw Mountain to the bike trail that I ride every day in summer, and (eventually) Atlanta, and eventually, to the east coast.  

Far enough. 

Greta Gerwig on "Lady Bird," Church, and Sondheim

My friend Suzanne's choice of Lady Bird for this year's Christmas movie date turned out to be perfect for us.  For her, writer-director Greta Gerwig dissects the special relationship between mother and daughter, in dialogue always teetering between hilarious and harrowing.  For me, there's the intersection of the movie with two of my lifelong interests, Church and Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musicals.  The director discussed all three threads of the movie in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air in November.    

Like any Sondheim musical, the opening scene sets up motifs and patterns for the whole movie:
High school senior Christine (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) are sharing a moment in a road trip, crying at the end of a book on tape.  In mere seconds, silence erupts into conflict over Christine's desire to go to college as far as possible from their home town Sacramento, over her dim prospects of getting into any college anywhere when she "can't even  pass her driving test," and a line that Gerwig conceived before she even knew what the rest of the movie would be about: "Why don't you call me 'Lady Bird?'  You promised that you would."  The girl throws open the door and escapes the moving car.  

The rest of the movie unpacks that scene.  "Lady Bird" tries to escape through relationships with a sunny drama geek named Danny (Lucas Hedges), a darkly pretentious loner named Kyle (Timothee Chalomet), and a popular rich girl Jenna (Odeya Rush), sacrificing her friendship with Julie (Beanie Feldstein).  She enlists help of her gentle father (Tracy Letts) to get a scholarship to an eastern school.  She cheats to boost her academic average.  When the girl finally asserts her real self, she gets out of another car -- while the pop song "Crash" plays on the radio.

At every turn, the daughter bumps up against her mom's money worries and disappointed expectations.   "I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be," the mother tells her daughter, who retorts, "But what if this is the best version?"  The mother has no answer.  Gerwig told Terry Gross that this is the kind of moment she loves, when language fails to express what characters are feeling.  Gerwig says that the mother is afraid for her daughter.  We can see her point, and her daughter's, too; "neither one is the villain," Gerwig says.  

While I appreciated all that, I was thrilled that the relationship with Danny develops in the context of rehearsals for Merrily We Roll Along.  Gerwig tells Terry Gross that she chose that show for its resonance with her characters, mother and daughter. "The show has a central ache -- about how where you end up and how where you're from are so connected and so different."  An article in Spin online dwells on this point, how both Christine's parents are dealing with the disappointments in their own lives.  "In the end, Gerwig juxtaposes images of both women driving through Sacramento, making their lives feel, for a moment, like different stages in the same story."   (Winston Cook-Wilson in  (About the musical and its themes, see my blogpost.)

I was also delighted that the biggest breakthroughs in the movie come through interaction with the Church.  Christine attends a Catholic high school, so there's the expected snickering at the girls' uniform code, the nun who swoons over a paragraph of romance in Kierkegaard, and the chaperone's requiring "six inches for the Holy Spirit" between dancing couples.  But the passage of time is marked by communion and the reminder of Ash Wednesday, "You are dust and to dust you shall return." 

An elderly nun (Lois Smith) gives "Lady Bird" wise advice with a mischievous twist, pointing her in a new direction each time.  Considering the girl's college application essay, the nun observes that the girl's vivid description of Sacramento bespeaks deep love for her home, but Christine vehemently denies that, saying she was just paying close attention to detail.  The nun counters, "Love and paying attention:  Aren't they the same thing?" The question begins Christine's re-examination of all her beliefs and relationships.  At a low point, Christine stumbles into a church and stands in luminous sunlight, dumbfounded by the beauty of the choir's song.

Gerwig is no Catholic, she told Terry Gross, but she found the nuns and priests in her own Catholic school days to be "interesting," the stories and liturgy "enriching," and singing in the choir a joy.  Her understanding of the saints is important to the whole movie.  Their stories frequently are those of arrogant, difficult teenagers whose ambitions "can be translated to something holy." Ignatius, for example, turned his childish desire to be "the best" saint into a spiritual practice that works.  Gerwig named the girl "Christine" partly in homage to her own mother Christine, but also because it's the feminine form of "Christ."  

The chosen name "Lady Bird" suggests both Christine's arty pretentions and  flying away; but the film's poster, posed to suggest a stained-glass icon, with crucifix in the background, is reminiscent of portraits of "Our Lady" Mary.  A detail in the back view of the poster  (see photo, below) uses the "bird" to suggest that it's another Christian symbol, for something we see moving through all the ups and downs of Christine's story, the Spirit.  

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A Merrily Little Christmas, with Lonny Price's Documentary

It's been a Merrily little Christmas this year.  Songs from the musical Merrily We Roll Along figure prominently in the hit movie Lady Bird, and Lin - Manuel Miranda's performance of the Merrily song "Franklin Shepard, Inc." was re-broadcast December 26 on NPR's Fresh Air.  But why should there be attention today for a show that ran only two weeks, closing before I got to use my tickets for Christmas, 1981? 

The answer to that question is part of the interest in Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, Lonny Price's documentary about the original Broadway cast of the show originally directed by Harold Prince, with book by George Furth, music and lyrics by Stephen SondheimThe documentary's title comes from a lyric in the show, when friends try to assure the central character that the collapse of his marriage is really "the best thing that ever could have happened."  I just watched the film twice.

Early in the documentary, Price shows us his collection of Sondheim show cast albums ("long-playing" LP vinyl records, for those too young to remember), and asserts that "no one my age loved Sondheim as much as I did.  No one."  But he's way off.  Immediately, every cast member gets to tell the camera how they, too, knew every song, owned every album.

I'm Price's age, and I owned every album, too.  In September 1981, when Price and company began rehearsals for their preview in November, I was in Jackson, Mississippi, a rookie teacher of drama and humanities, saving money for my trip to see Merrily during Christmas break.  I'd memorized  Carly Simon's recording of the show's big ballad "Not a Day Goes By," released two months in advance of the show's opening. 

Because Merrily We Roll Along is the story of middle-aged friends ruing how, "rolling along" with life, they've ended up far from where they'd hoped to be in their high school dreams, the documentary about the cast's reflections in middle age is full of meta- moments, for Price, for the actors, and for me. We see how Merrily's theme has been lived in the time between two comments recorded by the documentary.  In 1981, Hal Prince explains to actors age 24 or less that he's casting them for middle-aged roles because "you know something we [50-year-olds] don't know."  But in 2015, Terry Finn, once one of those young actors, now tears up when she reflects, "Young people don't know... you're building something."

Price's making of the documentary is itself part of the documentary.  We see on camera Price's first viewing of a long-forgotten tape of him at age 21, when young Price said that being cast in the show was "it," that he could be hit by a truck the day after the show opened and not mind, because his whole life's dream was fulfilled.  At age 55+, Price gets asked, "Do you like him?" about his younger self, and, "Would he like you?"  Price tears up, and so do I.  Price says yes, although he'd feared that "he'd" be embarrassing, and, "I like to think he'd like some of my work."  And that's both musical and documentary in microcosm.

The other time I get emotional during the documentary is watching the benefit performance onstage in 2002.  The actors today remember aloud what clips from 1981 confirm, how troubled the show was, how the creators --"theatre gods" -- were all too human, realizing too late that they'd made bad choices: casting young amateurs, going for a stripped-down look, losing sight of the "simplicity" of their original concept, to the bafflement of audiences.  But then an actress who remembered "waves" of people leaving the theatre during her performance in 1981 tells of people standing and cheering for the reunion concert twenty-one years later, "not just Sondheim fans, but Merrily fans."  We see Sondheim and Prince hug center stage before the ecstatic crowd.

Why do I weep at that happy moment, I wonder?   "Redemption" always pushes my buttons.  Sondheim tells Price that he was angry at the "glee" people took in hating the show, but he also felt that he'd let people down.  Prince tells Price that he didn't want to go to the reunion concert in 2002, but it ended up being "the best night of my life."  My reaction to the triumphant curtain call of that reunion concert may also be from a validation:  I've always felt pretty isolated, but there on the video is the roar of my tribe; I belong.

For fans of the show, there's a meta-moment to end all meta-moments.  In 1981, Lonny Price invited the cast and creators to his birthday party.  Through cassette tape and Polaroid snapshots, we get the moment when the party gathers at the piano to hear Stephen Sondheim premiere his song "Good Thing Going," written for a scene in which a party gathers at the piano to hear Lonny Price's character "Charley" premiere his song "Good Thing Going."

What a gift Merrily We Roll Along is, 37 years after that miserable Christmas flop, a good thing going and still giving.

Of related interest 
On Christmas night, just yesterday, my friend Suzanne and I were surprised that songs of Merrily We Roll Along show up in the hit movie Lady Bird.  She had accompanied me to Cincinnati in 2012 to see Merrily in a high-profile production directed by John Doyle. Read my review of Doyle's Merrily.
I also saw the HD broadcast of the Olivier-Winning London Version with my friend Susan, and wrote a long piece about the impact of a single song on the whole show:  Rhymes with Integrity.  I reflect on Lady Bird, with director Greta Gerwig's observations about Merrily We Roll Along (link).

[Photo:  After seeing Lady Bird, Suzanne and I found no place open for dinner.  We ended up at the Waffle House, where I also received a Christmas text from my former student, bike buddy Jason, who takes me to Waffle House during my annual Thanksgiving visit to him. Both Jason and Suzanne were tots in 1981; they are now the age I was when I moved away from Mississippi to the Atlanta area.  More Merrily reflections come to mind.  Here's my photo to Jason, sitting across from Suzanne, at Waffle House, Christmas night, 2017.]

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas Card from Mom

Mom chose the card that says precisely what I'd hope to hear from her, with exactly the image I would have chosen for myself -- I'm a sucker for a lone cardinal on a bare tree's branch.

[Text:  Son, Every season of your life has meant more pride, greater joy, deeper love.  To Scott, Wishing a wonderful Christmas to a son who has brightened the world from the start... who is loved more than ever.  Thank you for all you do.  Love, Mom]

I've already written about the climb we've made to a better plateau after a tumultuous December last year.  This cold, sunny Christmas Day, I'm taking Mom south of Atlanta to see her daughter and son-in-law.  We'll walk Sassy in the cemetery, and she'll have a warm evening with her Visiting Angel friend Laura.

(Below)  We both injured ourselves walking dogs.  Mom fell on uneven pavement walking Sassy a couple weeks ago;  I went to the hand specialist around the same time, complaining about increasing pain in my wrist, dating back to a time in June when Mia pulled the leash hard to the right.  Wrapped around my left wrist, the leash evidently tore a ligament.  Mom and I are getting along fine, one-handed.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Y is for Yesterday: Grafton Takes the Class of '79 to School

More than the crimes, more than who did what, more even than the matched set of dangerously narcissistic males who lurk behind both plot and sub-plot, what I'll remember from Y is for Yesterday is Sue Grafton's portrayal of a prep school's hoi polloi in 1979.  I was there, then; wide-eyed, innocent, with nice friends, I still recognize that world.

Grafton's chapters move in parallel arcs, a school intrigue that ends in the fatal shooting of the good girl, and P.I. Kinsey Millhone's search for a blackmailer among the old classmates ten years later.   The chapters set in 1989 divide our attention between that investigation and developments from earlier novels, involving some homeless friends, their dog Killer, some family issues, and a murderous sociopath named Ned who wants to kill Kinsey.  These chapters felt padded, but, sensing that Grafton is tying things up to set a satisfying bow on her alphabet series, I'm willing to give her some slack.   

But the chapters set in 1979 are tight. The characters are also "tight," drinking, getting high, and bound uncomfortably to alpha male Austin, who's said to "have something" on everybody.   He kept his hands clean while his posse taped themselves raping an underage girl; untouched by a cheating scandal, he engineered the shunning of his ex-girlfriend Sloan, ostensibly because she snitched on the cheats. When the school year ended, he invited her to a pool party at his parents' place in the mountains.  She accepted his olive branch, though she suspected an ulterior motive, because she had a copy of the sex tape.  After dark, his slavish sophomore buddy Fritz shot Sloan to death.  Fritz did time;  Austin disappeared.  

We get this whole outline early; Grafton fills it out in sticky detail, with a mounting sense of doom, about one chapter in every four.  We come to admire Sloan, a girl with integrity, courage, and a lovable big dog.  We get to know the members of Austin's entourage, as they were in 1979, and as they have become in 1989; we get to know some of the parents of the kids.  Except for Sloan, not one is likeable, but Grafton captures the intensity of kids playing at being grown-ups with all their grown-up accessories -- cars, intoxicants, sex, and a gun. 

Grafton aims for a cathartic action-packed confrontation every time.  This one fulfills our expectation with elements of comedy, a fresh twist that I appreciate.

On her own website, Grafton writes, "Z IS FOR ZERO [follows] in the fall of 2019. Many of you are asking (some quite plaintively) what I intend to do when I get to ‘the end’ of the alphabet. I’ve been consistent in my response which is 'no clue.' I want to see what kind of shape I’m in mentally and physically. I don’t want to keep on writing if the juice is gone."

My sense is that Grafton knows what she's doing, and what she's going to do, and she hasn't let us down yet (with one X-ception); here's looking forward to Z.

P.S., December 29, 2017:  Friends and NPR have told me that Sue Grafton died today, and that her daughter announced "there will be no Z."  How wonderful and terrifying this alphabetical scheme turned out to be!  It may have begun as a marketing ploy, but it ended up being a game, a marvel, a responsibility, something close to unique in literary history.  I know nothing of Sue Grafton's life or family, but we've been on a journey together, and we feel sympathy, loss, and gratitude for what this woman has achieved   

For links to my reflections on Grafton's novels I through X, see my page Crime Fiction. Reading the books in order allowed me to draw lessons from her as she learned from experience.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Thanks for FOLLIES

Applause broke out in Atlanta last week for a performance of the musical Follies in London last month.  The actors in the National Theatre's production, being mere high-definition shadows on a screen, could not hear us. But Follies is all about dialogue with shadows of the past, so, why not express our gratitude?

[Photo collage (clockwise from top left):  Peter Forbes (Buddy); Tracie Bennett (Carlotta); "Prologue"; Imelda Staunton (Sally); Janie Dee (Phyllis); Di Botcher (Hattie); the characters confront their younger selves including Zizi Strallen (Young Phyllis, second from left); Philip Quast (Ben); Alex Young (Young Sally) and Adam Rhys-Charles (Young Ben)]

Thank you, Imelda Staunton, for "Sally." You give her a volatile perkiness, and ferocity in defense of her deluded devotion to "Ben." When you perform the great torch song "Losing My Mind," staged to be stagey -- glam wig and gown, color-coordinated vanity -- the "real" Sally shows through. We can pinpoint the moment Sally recognizes that Ben never loved her.  Your final word on stage, when you realize that it's "tomorrow" and you face the rest of your life without your fantasy, your breakdown is hard to watch.  Thank you for your energy and vulnerability.  Also, I appreciate the expressive musicality you bring to your "book" songs, especially on that tough last note of "In Buddy's Eyes."

Thank you, Janie Dee, for "Phyllis."  Striding onto a stage busy with actors, you instantly commanded our attention as American royalty.  I hadn't noticed in others' portrayals how many of Phyllis's lines are rapid-fire questions.  Maybe you're the first to appear to be truly seeking answers. Even during your "folly" number, always a show-stopper for the actress in your role, you showed vulnerability, interacting with "Young Phyllis," the"Lucy" to your "Jessie."  Earlier, when you sing, "Could I Leave You?" -- more questions! --  you build your rage step by ironic step to an explosion of bitterness.   We're with you!

Thank you,  Peter Forbes, for "Buddy."  You recreate a dinosaur that roamed the USA in my childhood, the Positive-Thinking-Rotarian-traveling salesman, hard drinking and aggressively ingratiating. The unstable past-and-present world of Follies forces you to acknowledge your worst fear, that you've given your life for a woman you cannot live with.  Sondheim gives you two big numbers to dissect your character's situation. In "Buddy's Folly," you do the Eddie Cantor shtick  and, true to type, play the situation for laughs, but it's a forced merriment; and in "The Right Girl," you dance with the ghost of "Young Buddy" (Fred Haig), building to an angry, despairing breakdown.  I believed every moment.

Thank you, Philip Quast, for "Ben."  Cool, charming, your "Ben" loses control during the magnificent duet "Too Many Mornings."  While "Sally" sings to you, you sing largely to a ghost, "Young Sally."  The song closes on a heart-stopping phrase in harmony, imagining a tender embrace, "with your head against my head," and a solo violin echoing the promise you just sang: "It was always real, and I've always loved you this much."  Ben is wrapped, and rapt, in the moment; but seconds later, when Sally believes you'll marry her, you panic.  Later, Ben begs"Carlotta" to "just talk" to him. You make this man's disintegration painful and credible.

Thank you, Tracie Bennett, for "Carlotta Campion."  The website tells us you've played Judy Garland, and it's no wonder: you sing "I'm Still Here," Sondheim's homage to Harold Arlen, composer of Garland's bluesy signature song "The Man That Got Away" (and that other one about a rainbow).  Like Garland, you have the quality of singing witty lyrics as if expressing thoughts just occurring to you in the moment, and you belt as if you're putting all you've got into the notes.  Your "Carlotta" is so funny in her candid self-deprecating way, and the song begins as an extension of that manner, just anecdotes to adoring party guests.  When you step apart downstage to sing to us, we feel that we're seeing a woman at the moment she accepts herself.

Thank you,  Dominic Cooke, directing the show, for so many thoughtful choices in design and staging.  The "Follies" facade of crumbling brick, able to rotate at the center of the set, kept action fluid as scenes shifted in time and location; the lighting was eerie, especially at the end when rays of the morning sun cut through a tear in the brick wall.  The pastiche numbers, performed in revues as stand-alones, tempt a performer to grandstand; but your actors sing with intensity as if they might not live to sing these songs again -- which, of course, is exactly the situation for the elderly "Whitmans," "Hattie," "Solange," and, especially the faltering soprano "Heidi."  Most of all, I appreciate how you make those ghosts a part of the action, silent witnesses to the party, participants in songs where I've not seen them perform -- most notably in "The Right Girl" and "Lucy and Jessie."  In a related move, you turned the young couples' double-duet into semi-staged scenes with props and little revue-style sets. Your choices all aimed to help your actors to make their characters' inner lives visible.  And thank you for allowing the show to develop as its creators intended, without intermission .

Thanks to Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman for writing the show, and to the original director Harold Prince who encouraged you to go with your risky impulse to abandon plot and to write the ghosts into the action. In a pre-show interview, Sondheim explained how readings of drafts one through seven were lively and fascinating so long as characters were getting re-acquainted at the party, but became "mechanical" once the plot started.  The audience laughed when Sondheim said that they decided to write their show with no plot.  Instead, Sondheim and Goldman structured the show in waves of ever-increasing tension, building to the surreal break where past and present meet in the "Follies."(Thanks again, Mr. Cook:  I've seen the show three other times, always with an intermission that weakened the show's momentum.)

My Earlier Posts about Follies

For a detailed overview of the show, with more specifics about story and songs, read my review of the 2010 revival in D.C., "Kennedy Centers Follies: Haunting and Haunted."

"Sondheim's FOLLIES Encore"  is my response to rapturous reviews in 2007 of the "Encores!" FOLLIES, so different from responses to the first incarnation of the show.

Ted Chapin was a gofer for director Harold Prince during rehearsals for the premiere production, and later wrote a memoir of that time, Everything Was Possible.  Craig Zadan interviewed actors, writers, and production staff for his book Sondheim and Company, published a couple years after the show closed.  I reflect on both books in "Every Minor Detail's a Major Decision." Learning from Harold Prince: A Director's Journey focuses on the book by Carol Ilson about the show's first producer-director, Sondheim's friend and collaborator.

Follies figures prominently in my essay on "Sondheim's Religious Vision."

For much more on Sondheim, his influences, his craft, and his other shows, see my Sondheim Page.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Sondheim's Religious Vision

The man who wrote "thieves get rich / saints get shot / God don't answer prayers a lot" can be trusted when he says that religious rites and beliefs have played no part in his life.  

But when a 2002 letter published in The New York Times claimed that musical theatre has been "robbed of joy" by Stephen Sondheim, and when even admiring bloggers call his work "amoral" and "cynical," my theological training kicks in to answer the charges.  Actually, Sondheim's work is consistently "religious" in the sense that religion shares with ligament: It's about what ties us to our world -- how "no one is alone."  A theological look at Sondheim's works might help future directors appeal to audiences put off by his reputed "dark vision."

Before we look for Sondheim’s version of sin or redemption, we can bury that canard about his killing joy.  His intention, at least, is to evoke it.  “Joy” was his own word when he met with teens (including me) at Broadway’s Music Box Theater in June 1977.

Asked about Pacific Overtures, which some critics called “arid” and “cold,” Sondheim said, “I would like to think [audiences] would feel a kind of joy” seeing the imagination and skill in the way the story was told, whether or not they warmed to the subject. His admirers are familiar with that kind of joy: “We revel in the glories that his works endlessly yield,” writes composer Jason Robert Brown. “This is the true gospel:  this thing we do, this art we propose to create, can aspire to a greater perfection, a truer and richer transcendence” (“Worshiping in the Church of Steve,” Kennedy Center, 2002).  (See my blogpost on the joy of Pacific Overtures).
But Sondheim has indeed robbed the musical of the happy ending, giving us instead something more affecting and real, a new start.  Theologians would call that redemption.  The most prominent example is Into the Woods, when the false promise of happiness in Act I, “Ever After,” is followed by life-and-death struggles in Act. II.  The end of the play is just the beginning for a reconstituted family, and Sondheim sends the audience out of the theatre with a caution and a hope: “Into the woods / You go again, / You have to every now and then,” but “everything you learn there / Will help when you return there.”

The Frogs shows faith that theatre can effect a change of heart and perhaps a change of life, when the company instructs the audience to save their community:  “Citizens of Athens / If you’re smart, / Don’t sit around while Athens / Falls apart,” concluding, “And now – We start.”

Merrily We Roll Along seems to lack redemption, retracing a life to the point where Franklin Shepherd’s friendships start their doomed trajectory.  But as we see young friends on a roof marveling at Sputnik and looking forward to “so much stuff to sing” in “Out Time,” the joyfulness in Sondheim’s music makes it possible to feel that there’s a chance to start over and get it right this time – if not For Franklin Shepard, then for us. (Read my blogpost on Merrily "Rhymes with Integrity").

Other Sondheim finales promise renewal instead of final reward.  Anyone Can Whistle ends “With So Little to Be Sure Of,” sung by a pair ready to begin new lives, apart.  Sunday in the Park with George builds to a song about taking risks (“Move On”) and finishes with the words, “A blank page or canvas. So many possibilities.”  The bachelor Robert of Company doesn’t show up for his birthday party in the final scene, leaving his friends to conclude that he has left the “warm” and “cozy” life of “Side by Side by Side” to seek a committed relationship, because he has learned that "alone is... not alive."  Follies ends with couples shaken, but shorn of illusions; A Little Night Music concludes with several relationships rearranged and renewed; and Bounce  [since revised to be Road Show] ends with the brothers ambling off into eternity, saying, “Sooner or later, we’re bound to get it right.”  (They’re in a hokey Heaven, but this and other posthumous appearances in Sondheim’s works are for framing the play, not an endorsement of the doctrine of life after death.)

Before redemption is possible, there must be what theologians call judgment, when people recognize they’re on the wrong path.  Follies is explicitly about “The Road You Didn’t Take.” Using ghosts of the past and pastiche songs of youthful optimism, Sondheim and his collaborators confront characters with the disparity between cherished illusions and reality.  Merrily takes a microscopic look into Franklin Shepard’s moment of judgement, a violent dissolution of his personal life at the pinnacle of his professional success. The show looks backward from that moment for an answer to the question, “How did you get so far off the track?” Along the way Charley and Mary “nudge” him back to the right path, and Mary tells Franklin after a deep crisis, “Now you know… It’s called letting go your illusions / And don’t confuse them with dreams.”  But he doesn’t get it.

Some of the most powerful numbers in Sondheim’s scores dramatize this moment of recognition in a character’s life.  In “Rose’s Turn” (Gypsy), “Live, Laugh, Love” (Follies), and “Send in the Clowns” (Night Music), characters passing middle age realize that while they’ve been filling “scrapbooks,” laying out their lives “like lines on a graph,” or “tearing around … opening doors,” they have missed their chances to love and be loved.  In two powerful Sondheim songs, “Too Many Mornings”  (Follies) and “Lesson #8” (Sunday) the singers imagine their lives “wasted,” “Leaving no mark,” “merely” (or “just”) passing through.  Sondheim’s Assassins sing how they “have a right to expect” that they’re going to “connect, connect, connect,” and lash out because they learn “it’s never gonna happen.”

Sin, a Failure of Vision
How do characters get into such a fix?  Theologians’ answer to that is sin, which in Sondheim’s work seems to be a failure of vision.  Focused on an illusory and selfish goal, the character fails to see the individual worth of any other person.  Near the end of Into the Woods, the Baker concludes that our moral responsibility is to enter into others’ perspectives, to “honor” (by understanding) the “terrible mistakes” of others – fathers, mothers, giants, witches – remembering always that “holding to their own, thinking they’re alone” is going to do great damage.

Sondheim depicts characters so focused on attaining “class” (Gene in Saturday Night), “success” (Ben in Follies), or “the glamorous life” (Desiree in Night Music), and becoming “rich and happy” (Franklin in Merrily) that they fail to see how they neglect and hurt the people who would love them.  The Witch thinks she can preserve what she calls “Our Little World” (Into the Woods) by locking Rapunzel in a tower.  Similarly, Rose (Gypsy) tries to keep her “babies” from growing up for the sake of her own “dream.”  Focused on revenge, Sweeney Todd blurs everyone together as either “wicked” or deserving euthanasia (“Epiphany”), and he doesn’t recognize his own family.

Creation: Life is Good
Contrast Sondheim’s monsters Sweeney and Rose with a pair of saints who “belong together,”George and Dot (Sunday in the Park).  Each is concerned with making a mark, not “passing through / Just like the people out strolling on Sunday.”  Dot makes her connection to posterity through relationships.  George, far from having “No Life,” enters vicariously into the lives of the individuals he sketches, singing their songs with them to make art that lives “forever.”  The song “Children and Art” underscores how their approaches to life are complementary: As their story naturally deals with vision, connection, and mortality, this collaboration between Sondheim and James Lapine is the most complete statement of Sondheim’s overview of what theologians call creation, the nature of life itself.

In a word, creation is beautiful.  “Pretty is what changes,” George explains to his mother, who laments the disappearance of pretty views.  “What the eye arranges / Is what is beautiful.”  Not only “all trees, all towers” are worthy of close attention for George, but also the individuals – from high-society women down to the cranky garbage man and his dog.  George’s mother, suddenly aware that her own life is slipping away moment by moment, urges him, “Quick!  Draw it all!” (See my reflection "Sunday, Art, and Forever")

After this song about mortality and eternity comes the anthem “Sunday.”  George “revises the world,” posing the characters.  When he tenderly takes Dot’s hand to put finishing touches on her portrait, he softly hums, confirming how this painting is his expression of love for her.  From that quiet passage, the chorus builds to the word “forever.”  Sondheim’s anthem, interweaving all the strands of the play – its story, themes (vision, eternity, connection), design, musical motifs – is made more poignant in a live performance by the knowledge that this perfect consummation is passing even as we watch.  No wonder audiences often weep for “Sunday”!

Sondheim Practices What He Preaches
As George does, as the backer advises, Sondheim takes extraordinary care to honor the individual perspectives of characters, even minor ones, with the kind of richly layered polyphony that is his specialty (“Company,” “Four Black Dragons,” “Pretty Lady,” “Something Just Broke”).  His favorite song, “Someone in a Tree,” celebrates diversity of perspective.  He finds interest even in assassins, con men, a stalker (Fosca in Passion), a rapacious judge and a demon barber.  We don’t have to forgive them, but through imagination and eloquence, we understand them

Sondheim’s own career exemplifies another moral imperative that even some of his bad guys get right: Don’t settle for “living life in the living room” (Gypsy).  “Fall if you have to, but … make a noise” (Whistle).  “A person should celebrate everything passing by” (Night Music). “Burn your bridges, start again / Or you’ll never grow” (Merrily). “Stop worrying where you’re going, move on” (Sunday in the Park).  “Without  a risk, the world seems pretty tame” (Bounce / Road Show).

And, in the words of the only full-fledged god to speak in Sondheim’s work (Pluto in The Frogs): “When you’re not afraid to die,  / Then you’re not afraid to live.”

(For many, many more articles of related interest, see my Sondheim page.) 

(This essay was printed as "So Many Possibilities: A Look at Sondheim's Religious Vision" in the Sondheim Review, Winter 2006, pp. 21-22.  Since I wrote it, and the journal is defunct, I suppose that I don’t break any copyright laws by posting it here -- or, if I do, that no one will care.)