I picture Stephen Sondheim, boxed in. Maybe he knows the second act of the show this song is from, “Into the Woods,” is more interesting in ambition than achievement. Maybe his book writer and director, James Lapine, is trying to convince him that at the end of this much-weaker second act, they need some uplift. Yes, Lapine is saying, we’ve been showing what happens after happily ever after, but it’s a show about fairy tales. No matter what they’ve managed to stir up along the way, fairy tales demand ultimate uplift.
Sondheim understands genre demands. And he can do uplift when he feels like, for instance the song “It Takes Two” from this same show. But he hates feeling like he has to do uplift. Who do they think he is, Oscar Hammerstein?
Which gives him an idea. “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” fuck that, all we do is walk alone. “Mother cannot guide you/Now you’re on your own.” “You decide what’s good/You decide alone…” But even that’s letting people off too easily. Yes, we walk alone–in terms of the failure of friendship, family, community–but that doesn’t mean we are alone–in terms of the consequences of our actions, their ability to affect others (and since I’m Sondheim now, when I say “affect” I’m really thinking “hurt”). It’s the worst of all worlds: we make our decisions alone, no one helps us or saves us from our mistakes, but we remain connected inasmuch as our mistakes can doom others. You want to take uplift from the phrase “no one is alone” sung to a gorgeous melody full of yearning notes, you want to think I’m writing about a different, more hopeful kind of connectedness, then be my guest…suckers.
“Subversive” when talking about music usually refers to a pretty melody with political lyrics (like Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army”) or a pop song that throws in a few jazz chords (though I’ve never really understood why that is so subversive.) I think this might be the most subversive song I know, and every time I hear of it being sung at a telethon or benefit or memorial service, I picture Stephen Sondheim enjoying his grim joke. Which manages to make me feel a little sorry for perhaps the most brilliant composer musical theater composer of at least the last 50 years.