Being Alive in 2019: The Year Sondheim Saturated Pop Culture

Stephen Sondheim, alive at 89, has strangely haunted pop culture in 2019.

Movies Features Stephen Sondheim
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Being Alive in 2019: The Year Sondheim Saturated Pop Culture

The way that Adam Driver ends “Being Alive,” which his character in Marriage Story has just sung in full (including dialogue asides from Company’s lead’s friends), is like watching him drain what’s left of his spirit out onto the floor, in front of his small audience (which includes us). The performance starts off kind of goofy, the uninvited theater kid taking the reins to sing one of Broadway’s greatest showstoppers, but then, in another aside, he says, “Want something… want something…” He begins to get it. He begins to understand the weight of life, the dissatisfaction of squandered intimacy and what it might mean to finally become an adult: to embrace all those contradictions, all that alienation and loneliness. He takes a deep exhalation after the final notes, after the final belt; he finally realizes he’s got to grow up, take down his old life, make something new.

It’s a lot like living on the Internet these days, all these prolonged messages encouraging togetherness, trying to posit joy and excitement, yet drowned out by competition, imposter phenomenon, condescension, glibness. The impossibility of crafting an “authentic self,” negligible the term may be, is compounded by a cultural landscape that refuses to admit that “authenticity” is as inauthentic a performance as anything else. Working through identities is painful and ugly, but also totally transfixing. Arguably, we’re all working through how to be ourselves in relation to those around us.

That’s what Bobby, the 35-year-old at the center of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, is doing. Caught in an identity limbo between a litany of friends in various marital states and girlfriends growing tired of his antics, he launches into the final song. At first he’s skeptical and dismissive of what his friends have, but finally he realizes that he, most importantly, has to figure out what he wants for himself—seemingly made all the more difficult by being trapped in the highly mechanized metropolis of 1970s New York.

Sondheim, alive at 89, has strangely haunted pop culture in 2019. He’s not only in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (the film also features “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”), but in Joker, Rian Johnson’s murder mystery Knives Out, Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, two Ryan Murphy joints (FX’s Pose and Netflix’s The Politician), and IFC Channel’s parody series Documentary Now!, with an episode called “Original Cast Album: Co-Op,” which is based on DA Pennebaker’s film Original Cast Album: Company. Additionally, film critic David Ehrlich uses “Being Alive” as a song cue in his end of 2019 video supercut over The Irishman, Knives Out, Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell, the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems and Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms. Though these examples seem unrelated, one realizes that the pop culture of 2019 has the explosive emotion, the frustrated ambivalence, and the deep yearning of Sondheim—of “Being Alive” in particular—pulsating through it. Regardless if there’s a showtune in the text. Sondheim’s preoccupations bring them together, like a unifying vision.

There are ludicrous examples of Sondheim needle drops—Wall Street finance bros singing “Send in the Clowns” at Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) for an unbroken three verses; Patti LuPone showing up on Pose to do “I’m Still Here” just because—yet even the most absurd and deranged examples (Jennifer Aniston and Billy Crudup dueting on “Not While I’m Around” on The Morning Show) speak to a strange sense of isolation, frigidity and, ultimately, mistrust. Aniston and Crudup are on opposite sides: Her Alex Levy is the tenured morning anchor fighting for her agency, while his Cory Ellison is the network executive ready to push her out in favor of new blood. Their rendition is ironic, cutting, but also a gambit and a deal. The question of a real alliance hangs over the song, as Alex wrestles with her professional obligations (and secrets), with her legacy, and Cory evaluates how he wants to gain leverage in the company. They’re both hardened professionals, used to being burned, so the song takes on irony: Maybe through performance they find intimacy and trust.

For Aniston and Crudup, as off the walls as the show’s writing may be, there’s a there there. There’s interiority and psychology. The core of a human spirit, one might say. Those qualities are exactly what aspirational high school student body president Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) doesn’t have. In the sixth episode of the series, he, with maybe-ill Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutsch), sings “Unworthy of Your Love” from 1990’s Assassins, a macabre musical revue about and starring the people behind presidential assassinations, both successful and failed. The inclusion of Assassins reads at first as obvious and cheeky, but Murphy’s usage is inspired: The song, a love letter (in the style of a folk love song) from John Hinkley Jr. to Jodie Foster and from Squeaky Fraum to Charles Manson, essentially encapsulates the somewhat controversial musical’s overall challenge to the audience. Can you humanize someone who, we are told, is fundamentally inhuman?

Putting aside the impossibility of untangling the ways in which media narratives obfuscate humanity, deservedly or otherwise, the best thing about The Politician is that it knows its cast is basically a bunch of robots. Not least of all Payton, who is also performing, even when he’s trying not to perform. When he admits that he loved his late boyfriend (and former opponent) to Infinity’s mother (Jessica Lange), is he being honest or is he strategizing? What if there’s no difference for him? Watching Platt sing “Unworthy of Your Love” calls to mind two things: 1) Platt is a good song stylist, even though he does basically the same thing for every song (sad boy charms), and 2) we find another example of someone whose artificiality is the only way they can channel any sense of authenticity. His adoptive mother (Gwyneth Paltrow) off-handedly mentions how conditioned young people are to spill their guts and post about their own anxieties on the internet, and yet still struggle to foster closeness in person. Payton’s performance feels like an embodiment of that lost-ness. He doesn’t really have anyone. Sondheim’s music feels like when you realize that reality and it all comes crashing down on you.

Also in Movies