Sondheim – “The Glamorous Life”

March 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s Stephen Sondheim’s birthday – he’s a pianistic 88.

It’s hard to write about Sondheim without repeating what are by now cliches. But cliches (which Sondheim scrupulously avoids) usually contain some truth, and the one that sticks in my mind is this: Sondheim brings ambivalence to center stage. Sometimes it’s right there in the title of a song. In “Company,” in answer to the question, “Are you ever sorry you got married?” a character sings “Sorry Grateful” (“You’re always sorry, you’re always grateful, you’re always wondering what might have been.”)

In other songs, the ambivalence is subtext, as in “The Glamorous Life” from “A Little Night Music.” Frederika, young teenage girl, is singing about the glamorous life of her actress mother compared with the lives of “ordinary mothers.” It’s no contest, and yet, under the protestations of how wonderful it is to have a glamorous mother, Frederika senses that she’s missing something.
Ordinary daughters may think life is better
With ordinary mothers near them when they choose. . .

No, ordinary mothers merely see their children all year,
Which is nothing, I hear…
But it does interfere
With the glamorous—
Here is the great Audra McDonald performing the song at a celebration for Sondheim’s 80th birthday. Yes, there’s her powerful voice, but she also perfectly reveals the ambivalence. (I don’t see how an actual teenage girl could sing this song – the version in the movie of “Night Music” is not good – especially if she has ever heard this performance by McDonald.)


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