Music Monday: Marriage and "Being Alive"

Given the stereotypes, musical theater may not be the first place many would go to hear a robust defense of marriage. And Stephen Sondheim is likely the last well-known broadway composer many would turn to for pro-marriage revelry. But in his musical, Company, you will find one of the most compelling secular cases for marriage in popular culture that exists. Specifically, the closing number of the show, "Being Alive," is a surprising end to a brutally honest show.

Indeed, Sondheim understood the message would be surprising. The 1970, post-sexual revolution musical, is centered around upper-middle-class socialites attending the birthday party of Bobby, a 35-year-old unmarried man who is considering marriage. You can read a full synopsis of the show here. The show explores marriage and relationships, with many songs portraying older characters who cynical about the institution--they've been "put through the ringer" so to speak. Some of them more than once.

One of my favorite songs in the show, "The Little Things You Do Together," is a hilarious, sarcastic song about the idea that when you get married, that person is (to be colloquial about it) all up in your life. Here's an excerpt: 

It’s not so hard to be married,
It’s much the simplest of crimes.
It’s not so hard to be married—

JOANNE:
I’ve done it three or four times.

FRIENDS:
It’s the people that you hate together,
Bait together,
Date together,
That make marriage a joy.
It’s things like using force together,
Shouting till you’re hoarse together,
Getting a divorce together,
That make perfect relationships.
— Stephen Sondheim, "The Little Things You Do Together" from Company

It is probably songs like this that confused the NY Times critic who reviewed the musical when it first opened. As Sondheim later recounted in an interview (an interview which is featured in HBO's new documentary, Six by Sondheim), the show was widely panned when it opened, except by the New York Times who liked it because they thought the show was anti-marriage. They didn't get it, said Sondheim, which is clear when you get to "Being Alive."

This song is Sondheim's response to the critiques he expresses earlier in the show, and the response is sufficient, if not complete. Watch this incredible performance by Larry Kert, and see what I mean:

This song is perfect in the way that it stands on its own, but also, like a masterful closing argument, responds to the criticisms and cynics from earlier in the show. The song needs little explanation on its own, but through the filter of one's life it can impact a person in any number of ways.

I will simply close with one insight that has been personal to me:

We are told that freedom comes solely in living for yourself. That more freedom means more choices, more options and more expressions. That freedom means fewer commitments, fewer restrictions, less structure.

In an individualistic age, more and more people are questioning the value of marriage.  I have written about this before, and this is not the time to go into that debate, but I will say this: in my life, I have never felt as free as I do now that I am married. 

I know people who use scripture's exhortation to "guard your heart," as an excuse to never really open up to anyone. They view a lack of intimacy as pragmatism, and as a way to maintain freedom.

But emotional isolation is a prison unto itself--one I was locked in for far too long.

I thought it was wise, but it was a self-imposed hindrance. I was dead to so much of life.

It sounds cliche, but I have experienced it: you never know how dead you were until you finally open up to God, to love, to the very stuff of life itself.

The tough, rewarding thing about this life is that you must be vulnerable to fully experience it.

This is what Sondheim was getting at in "Being Alive." I return to it often: as a reminder of how dreary the alternative is no matter how appealing it appears at the time, and as an affirmation of just how worthwhile it is to live a life in pursuit of relationship.