Sondheim and the Ambivalence of Wanting

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A musical is a magic trick.

or

A musical is a confessional. The audience, the faceless confessor; the characters, their parishioner. Action begins: Choices are made, conflict arises. Action pauses: Someone begins to sing. It’s about desire, unhappiness, or hope. It’s too big to be contained by dialogue, too big to be expressed by anything but the rise and fall of music. The confessional walls fade. I’m the confessor, but I am letting something go, and for a moment, I am unencumbered. Exhilarated. I can move on. Be free of it.

This is about Stephen Sondheim, but you knew that, didn’t you?

It feels useless to try to be the millionth person — since his passing on November 26 at the age of 91 — to try to pin down what Stephen Sondheim meant. How lucky we were to have him, how he shaped theater, how much he loved performers, how much he loved to teach, how generous he was with his time. Many have written about him, many more will. It’s never been about the scholarship, not for me. It has always been how unerringly he was able to express the things I’ve never had words for.

I’ve never been too comfortable with emotion. Earnestness and vulnerability are things I prefer to skirt around, eliding and equivocating until the focus is on someone else. I feel things more easily than I’ve been able to articulate them, I always have. I want too much, and I’m too afraid to say it. Or I don’t know what I want, and I am embarrassed to admit it. Yearning and ambivalence, in equal measures. A parishioner in search of a priest.

My favorite Sondheim songs are the ambivalent ones. Well, that’s not exactly true. They are the ones that are ambivalent about wanting. Ambivalent about desire and what we are expected to desire and how we are expected to express that desire. It’s Cinderella in “Steps of the Palace”:

But then how can you know
What you want till you know
What you want, which I don’t
So then which do you pick?
While you’re safe, out of sight
And yourself, but where everything’s wrong
Or where everything’s right
But you know that you’ll never belong

Yearning is the thread that runs through everything he wrote: for love, for happiness, for recognition, for meaning. The fear of naming that desire. The fear of admitting it yourself, of letting yourself hope, of letting yourself want. Wanting beyond reason, beyond logic. I know how to yearn, writ large. I know how to want unspecifically, how to desire something I’ve never been able to name quite. Or maybe it’s something I know how to name and the trick of the thing is that I won’t let myself say it. It’s Amy and Bobby in “Being Alive”:

Blow out the candles, Robert, and make a wish. Want something! Want something!

Somebody hold me too close
Somebody hurt me too deep
Somebody sit in my chair
And ruin my sleep
And make me aware
Of being alive, being alive

And it’s the fear of the cost of that admission too, isn’t it? That is the fear I am writing toward, the one that’s buried between my words and Sondiem’s, the one that is lodged under my ribs. Is it easier to choose to be alone than it is to end up alone? It’s the constant fear of finding myself rebuffed, of being deemed unworthy to want the things I want. Is there anything scarier than that specific kind of unmooring? My secret no longer. No longer contained. No longer mine. It’s Desiree in “Send in The Clowns”:

Don’t you love a farce?
My fault, I fear
I thought that you’d want what I want
Sorry my dear

But, no, this is too dramatic, isn’t it? Too unfair to say all he gave me was yearning and ambivalence, he gave me the tools to learn how to see past it. To see that there is a kind of freedom in that loss, too. A hard won freedom, one that might hurt more than it helps for a while, but that hurt passes. The kind of strength that emerges when you take the risk and survive it. Cinderella finds a life in between the two options she was presented with; Bobby chooses to want more than the casual dalliances he’s had; Frederick confesses his love for Desiree. It’s Dot in “Move On”:

I chose, and my world was shaken
So what?
The choice may have been mistaken
The choosing was not
You have to move on

That’s all there is, in the end. Make the choice, feel the feeling, mourn the loss. Then move on. Sondheim’s legacy is more than wanting, more than ambivalence — it’s learning how to move past it. Learn to take a chance or say something true, something that exposes the soft inner parts of me. I can choose to want something more for myself, even if it scares me. Sondheim gave me that gift, too.

Maybe I don’t have to be in the audience, waiting for something to happen, waiting to see my feelings play out on stage without me. Maybe I stand up, my face resolves out of nothingness.

Maybe— I’ll sing back.


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Christina Tucker

Christina Tucker is writer and podcaster living in Philadelphia. Find her on Twitter or Instagram!

Christina has written 133 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. This was a beautiful tribute to the man who inspired my career, my art, and my life. I am a musical theatre writer who has been extremely impacted by Sondheim’s work and his vulnerability – his yearning. Musical theatre is all about yearning for and wanting something. The most basic of musical formats center around the “I want song” and the protagonist’s journey to achieve their want. The brilliance of Sondheim’s musicals is that his characters’ wants are so complex and often unknown to themselves. My characters’ fatal flaws are often that they’re too self-aware. Sondheim, having been in psychoanalysis (like myself), mastered the troubled character who is not overly self-aware, not overly sympathetic – they are human. He is in his characters and his songs (more than he ever cared to admit), and regardless, he perfectly captured the human spirit. In musical theatre school, we often are taught about characters being larger than life. Some, like Mama Rose in Gypsy or Sweeney Todd are driven with a clear goal, but even those characters’ strong wants can be broken down to the human condition.

    I’m going on and on, but essentially, Sondheim mastered the human condition through song. We yearn. We struggle to know what we’re yearning for. We struggle when we’re both the protagonist and the antagonist. We are Bobby. We are Desiree. We are Sally and Fosca and George and The Baker’s Wife. We are all human.

    Thank you, Mr. Sondheim.

    (P.S. You spell Sondheim incorrectly throughout this beautiful essay – it’s ‘eim’ not ‘iem’. Might be helpful for the search algorithm to correct.)

  2. i am not a musicals person. maybe it’s the complexity; that i have trouble following themes with all the singing and dancing, and i feel like i don’t know what’s going on. so i’m not sure if any of Sondheim’s work would be of the few musicals i’ve seen. i wanted to read this piece because Christina wrote it. now i wonder if i’ve been missing something.

  3. Thank you so much for this piece! It so beautifully and eloquently pinpointed what I’ve always gotten out of musicals (especially Sondheim) throughout my life. Something that’s felt deeply personal and only been a feeling or a sense, yet never something I’ve been able to put to words. But hey look here are the words! 💕

  4. This is a surprising echo of what I feel under my own ribs. The fear of expressing what I want. Because if I do, if I dare, the world will say No and drop me. Better to juggle the ambivalence and make others confess while I remain stoic and priest-like.

    This helps me understand why I run away from musicals. Too much truth, too many feelings.

    Thank you Christina.

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