Being Alive

Now, I don’t write a super lot about my personal life on this blog, but sometimes I gotta. The reason this time? I have a cool and unusual fact in my history: I wrote my college thesis on Stephen Sondheim. Not a lot of kids can say that. I wrote my thesis on human relationships in two of Sondheim’s musicals: Company and Follies. In the former, Bobby is the eternal third wheel. He goes back and forth on the idea of marriage and companionship, love and what it means to be attached to another person. His foils are all of his “crazy married people” friends, some in the midst of a happy divorce, others happily hitched and unable to admit it, still others terrified on their wedding day.

Bobby is a flake, seemingly content to be alone, always taking the easy path. He’s a bit of a cipher character, actually. Until the last few minutes of the show. He goes from asking that someone “Marry Me A Little” at the end of Act 1 and singing “I’m ready now” when he doesn’t really mean it…to realizing that he must surrender himself to the possibilities of love, life, and other people, both good and bad, when he sings “Being Alive,” the penultimate song of the show. That’s when he’s really ready. Here are the lyrics:

“Being Alive”

What do you get?
Someone to hold you too close,
Someone to hurt you too deep,
Someone to sit in your chair,
To ruin your sleep.

That’s true, but there’s more to it than that.
Is that all you think there is to it?
You’ve got so many reasons for not being with someone, but
Robert, you haven’t got one good reason for being alone.
Come on, you’re on to something, Bobby.
You’re on to something.

Someone to need you too much,
Someone to know you too well,
Someone to pull you up short
And put you through hell.

You see what you look for, you know.
You’re not a kid anymore, Robby. I don’t think you’ll ever
be a kid again, kiddo.
Hey, buddy, don’t be afraid it won’t be perfect. The only thing
to be afraid of really is that it won’t be.
Don’t stop now. Keep going.

Someone you have to let in,
Someone whose feelings you spare,
Someone who, like it or not,
Will want you to share
A little, a lot.

And what does all that mean?
Robert, how do you know so much about it when you’ve never
been there?
It’s much better living it than looking at it, Robert.
Add ’em up, Bobby. Add ’em up.

Someone to crowd you with love,
Someone to force you to care,
Someone to make you come through,
Who’ll always be there,
As frightened as you
Of being alive,
Being alive,
Being alive,
Being alive.

Blow out the candles, Robert, and make a wish.
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.

Somebody, need me too much,
Somebody, know me too well,
Somebody, pull me up short
And put me through hell
And give me support
For being alive,
Make me alive.

Make me confused,
Mock me with praise,
Let me be used,
Vary my days.
But alone is alone, not alive.

Somebody, crowd me with love,
Somebody, force me to care,
Somebody, make me come through,
I’ll always be there,
As frightened as you,
To help us survive
Being alive,
Being alive,
Being alive!

This wasn’t the original ending for Company; it was added in previews. And it’s brilliant. I love the turning point of the song, after Amy begs him to “want something,” when Bobby realizes that he’s not rejecting “someone to hold you too close,” he actually wants that yet-unknown Somebody. He craves someone he can take care of (per the scene after “The Ladies Who Lunch”). For the first time, there’s a sense of ownership: he wants to be an “us” (that word is used very pointedly in the lyrics above) and swears “I’ll always be there.” Those are heavy words for a third wheel! Creativity, humanity, and a life lived well are all immense responsibilities. They take courage, and he’s finally found it.

In the 2006 John Doyle-directed Broadway revival of Company, all of the actors played their own instruments. There was no orchestra. In a very symbolic touch, Bobby (played by Raúl Esparza, who is the ultimate Bobby, in my opinion) was the only one in the cast to refrain from playing an instrument until he sat down at the piano for “Being Alive.” It is the turning point in his life, the moment he decides to participate, the second everything changes.

This song doesn’t just speak about this one character’s experience, it speaks to the nature of life and human relationships, to love and fear, to vulnerability and authenticity. Those are all things I have been thinking intensely about in 2011. This year so far has seen the end of a relationship and the death of my beloved Sushi cat, a deeper bond with my colleagues and family, new culinary inspirations, a new group of friends in New York and across the country and truly fulfilling career successes. I’m also happier, personally and professionally, than I have ever been in my life.

There is a lot of fear in “Being Alive,” but a lot of strength, too. And, finally, love. Life takes all of the above. So this song, for me, focuses on the intense, the vibrant, the close, the passionate, the terrifying, the inspiring…all the things life is if you just open yourself to it and make yourself vulnerable to truly being alive. That means love, and other people, and being yourself, and admitting when you’re afraid, and knowing that sometimes it feels like you’re just barely surviving, but survive you do because without feeling acutely all of the parts of life, you aren’t truly human. You’re not experiencing the immense power of your time here. (This intensity and immediacy of feeling is also, by the way, why I love great YA fiction.)

When Bobby finally decides to throw himself headfirst into life and love, which is my impression of this song, he’s deciding to open himself up. It may not work out, but, as Peter says, “don’t be afraid it won’t be perfect. The only thing to be afraid of really is that it won’t be.” So when I went to magical Austin, I decided to give myself a permanent reminder to be open, be creative, be positive, be vulnerable, be aware, be disciplined, be principled, be true, be inspired, be full of life, be a part of a community, be held too close, hurt too deep, crowded with love. In short, to simply be. Be alive.

It’s on the inside of my upper arm, a little bit private, mostly for me to read and remember. (Sorry, Mom!) Plus, it says a pretty universal thing that even the Sondheim uninitiated can understand, just in case I don’t feel like explaining the reference. My smartass response will be: “Well, it’s literally what I’m up to right now.” You can see Raúl Esparza’s performance of “Being Alive” here. I was definitely watching it a lot last weekend. 🙂 This moment in my life is one I’d like to remember. It’s me saying, like Bobby, that “I’m ready now” for the next step, the next love, the next move, whatever that might be.

My deepest gratitude to Austin at Black Cat Tattoo in Austin, TX for the excellent bedside manner and the great take on the font I chose (an adapted Steelplate Script), to Jeremy Howell at Francisco’s Salon, also in Austin for the recommendation (and the sizzlin’ hot haircut), to John Cusick for going with me, providing moral support, and for buying me whiskey afterward, to Barbara Fraser at Santa Clara University for igniting my Sondheim passion with her senior seminar, and, finally, to Stephen Sondheim himself for crafting the story and the music that has resonated with the world so deeply.

26 Replies to “Being Alive”

  1. Ahh thanks for sharing so much of your life with us out here in cyberland. Keep writing! We love reading!

  2. Fantastic, inspiring post. I think a lot of aspiring writers are scared to fail, so they never try. Your words are a good reminder that you have to put yourself out there, make yourself vulnerable, take that risk. You’re so right–it does make you feel more alive! Congratulations on your personal and professional triumphs so far this year, and thanks for continuing to share your insight on the blog.
    The tattoo is beautiful. 🙂

  3. Lindsey — Excellent! Just for the record, my top favorite Sondheim shows, in order, are:

    Sweeney Todd
    Sunday in the Park with George
    Into the Woods

  4. An utterly inspiring post. Your tattoo joins Laurie Hals Anderson’s on my list of Best Tattoos Ever.

    Your also given me a new insight on the main character in my wip, who’s a bit of a Bobby, though not necessarily by choice.

  5. This post made me cry. Thank you for your inspiration and bravery! I am still struggling with my Bobby syndrome.

  6. The Raul Esparza version of BEING ALIVE is the most played song in my iTunes, Mary!!! I totally love it! Raul Esparza’s voice on that song! The way it almost breaks! Perfection…Such a beautiful song…somebody hold me too close…

  7. Mary,

    The tattoo is beautiful, but also the post encapsulates everything I adore about that song. It’s been my go-to for a year of relocation, trying to find intensity, trying to be alive in a whole new world where I’m doing what I love, but so far away from the people I love. This reminded me that it’s work for EVERYONE to live like this, and we have to remember to just… live.

    I think the intensity of feeling is why I’ve gravitated to YA fiction. It’s incredible.

    This post? also incredible.

  8. Thanks for this post, Mary. I was curious about your tatoo after seeing your tweet and re-reading the lyrics.

    Living your life in public is definitely about being alive and about being brave, and honest. Cheers to you.

    Of all of Sondheim (and there’s so much to admire and love), I have a special place for Merrily We Roll Along – it’s a really interesting show, structured to give the expected happy ending for a rather unhappy, messy story. I’ve always thought it’s under-appreciated.

    Hope the year brings you new adventures of the good and hopeful variety.


  9. Goosebumps! What a great post. I’m a big fan of meaningful tats. I have one myself that few people see (no, it’s not in a swimwear area!).

    You’ve also given me the urge to run outside and dance barefooted in the wet grass, worm poo and all.

  10. I don’t know much about Sondheim, but I’m loving the lyrics to that song. Some people get so wound up on the idea that their life and relationships should strive for perfection. Marriage gets hard and messy and even mean-spirited sometimes, but that’s all part of the package along with all the blissful parts. I’m not a tattoo person, but you got a really good one. Much better than the foot-long Bugs Bunny my high school acquaintance got down her back 😉

  11. I agree with Franziska and like meaningful tats, too. Great story behind yours!!

    It kind of makes me want to go get the one I’ve been putting off. Hmmm.


    I only watched Dean Jones sing it on You-tube last week. Never heard the song or saw the play. Now I feel as though I have, and you told it beautifully.

    You were dead on about the turning point in the song. Gotta dig out my Mandy Patinkin CD now and listen to “Oscar and Steve” until my family makes me turn it off!

    My tat would probably be “want something”. *snorts*

  13. Love it and love Sondheim. His music exists in that perfect world where intellectualism and artistry exist side by side as equals. You can always return to it and find something new.

  14. Love Sondheim! One of my goals in life is to see a musical on Broadway. Any musical. This was a very inspirational post, Mary. Thank you!

  15. Fantastic post! I saw a performance of Company at my alma mater a few years ago and loved it. I just watched the Raúl Esparza video and he’s incredible! I love Sondheim too. I performed in A Little Night Music when I was in college.

    I love your new tattoo and the meaning behind it. Thanks for sharing this! 🙂

  16. That is so cool…. you should be very proud of yourself!

    I LOVE his music and musicals although they are hard to sing (for the most part) and I am singer.

    Company in particular. Such a great show!


  17. It’s empowering and inspiring to see the stories that “mark” us. Congrats on your (first?) tat. Like stories, tats are addicting, too.

  18. Wow, that tatt’s looking fabulous. Now I’m sorry I didn’t get mine…But, next week!

    Sondheim is such a genius. How can he possibly be that brilliant and still be alive? Maybe my *third* tattoo will be something from Finishing the Hat.

    Great post, M.

  19. John — Yeah. Well. I’m the badass, aren’t I? I can’t wait until you get yours. “Look I made a hat, where there never was a hat” is too dang long for a good tattoo, unfortunately.

  20. Was just rewatching PBS’s six-part documentary on Broadway–
    Haven’t seen “Pacific Overtures” or “Assassins” yet (and did “The Frogs” ever make it to Broadway?)…But I’d tried sitting through the first act of Company on disk, and I’m of the opinion Sondheim hit only ONE stride during the late-70’s/early-80’s.
    Company just felt dated, it was TOO intellectual-cynical mid-70’s Ford-era NYC (every time I see a show now, I always think “What would Forbidden Broadway do with this? 😉 )–But after Sondheim stopped working with Hal Prince, all his James Lapine collaborations just felt kind of weenie: Passion and Sunday/George have thin stories and unsingable tunes, while Into the Woods had good tunes and a sellable concept, but Lapine’s book and direction played things way too jokey in the first act, and too words-of-one-syllable in the second.
    Hate to sound dopey-mainstream and say that “Sondheim never had it better than Sweeney Todd”, but that IS the one time Sondheim and Prince clicked for a mainstream audience.

    (And no, I don’t feel “too gay” in saying that. 😉 IMO, any author should know their Broadway classics by heart, because where else can we see a story format where internal dialogue is externalized so organically into the storytelling?
    That said, however, I do bemoan the 80’s Bus-Logo era turning into the 00’s Universal and Disney era, and still want to kill whoever thought up the Spiderman musical. >:( )

  21. Thank you Mary, for letting us in. That song is a beautiful reminder of all that is wonderful in the world, even the scary bits. I am in the midst of change as well, relocating once again (this time across the state instead of across country), hoping to develop myself in new ways, trying to leave behind things that no longer serve me, and striving to hold on dearly to the things and people that matter most. It’s scary to stand upon a precipice and purposefully step off, knowing, trusting that it will be okay.
    Congratulations on your successes and on the many future adventures you have yet to have! And on a beautiful tattoo that will always mean something wonderful to you, the best kind!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com