Sunday, April 06, 2008

Ah, well

Tonight, we saw a production of A Little Night Music, one of my favorite musicals.  I've seen it a number of times -- in good productions and bad productions -- and I always love it, one way or another.

When I first heard the album (yes, album, not CD, this was the dark ages), I was most taken with the song "Every Day A Little Death."  I think I'd read the lyrics somewhere before I actually heard the song, and had quite a different idea in my mind what it would sound like -- if you just read them and haven't heard the music, you might think the words chugged along to some dour melody.  But in fact, the melody is quite lilting and light -- the bridge gets a little more intense, but the main sections of the song are fairly restrained.  

I tried to learn how to play it on the piano -- it eluded my rudimentary piano skills.  The piano part is actually quite tricky and dissonant -- but when the song is played by an orchestra, the strings, oboe and flute bring out the lyricism of the song (while the poor clarinets have an endlessly repeating figure that flutters just below the surface -- supposedly the nickname for the song in orchestra pits is "Every Page A Little Breath.")

The song is sung by Charlotte, a countess who is reflecting on the suppressed pain of her life, trapped in a marriage to a man she loves desperately, but who is brazenly unfaithful to her.  She is singing to Anne, an 18 year old girl married to an older man, who has remained a virgin for the 11 months of her marriage.

Every day a little death
In the parlor, in the bed.
In the curtains, in the silver, in the buttons, in the bread.
Every day a little sting
In the heart and in the head.
Every move and every breath,
And you hardly feel a thing,
Brings a perfect little death.

He smiles sweetly, strokes my hair, says he misses me.
I would murder him right there,
But first I die.
He talks softly of his wars and his horses and his whores.
I think love's a dirty business.

Anne: So do I!  So do I...

I'm before him on my knees, and he kisses me.
He assumes I'll lose my reason, and I do.
Men are stupid, men are vain.
Love's disgusting, love's insane.
A humiliating business.

Anne: Oh, how true...

Ah, well.

Charlotte and Anne go on to sing the last verse in canon (like a round), as Anne realizes how her own situation mirrors that of Charlotte.  

At the time I first heard the song, I was also reading Dune, the science fiction epic by Frank Herbert.  The canon in "Every Day A Little Death" reminded me of the "Litany Against Fear" devised by the Bene Gesserit (the powerful sisterhood of nuns with extrasensory abilities.)

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

I think one of the powerful things about the lyric to "Every Day A Little Death" is its obliqueness and emotional restraint.  In the film version of A Little Night Music (which is off-kilter in so many ways), the otherwise marvelous Diana Rigg is given another verse which is heavy-fisted in its obviousness.  Likewise, in a 1996 London revival of the musical starring Judi Dench, the powers-that-be decided to combine "Every Day A Little Death" with a previously discarded song for the countess called "My Husband, the Pig."  That song has its amusing moments, but it was cut from the show for a reason.

I think one of the things I strive for in my own writing is that same oblique quality -- a restraint on the surface which hints at the emotion pulsing underneath, like the clarinets with their repeated notes going breathlessly on and on, underneath a sweet surface of violins and flutes.

Ah, well.


Blogger David said...

And the irony, of course . . . "little death" being the French euphemism for the moment after orgasm, which neither of them was having.

But how funny you mention it, because this was the first time I saw that show and I was very struck by the restrained power of the truth in that song, as well. (This is not a hint to my husband! It's a feeling that can be evoked in any situation where one feels powerless.)

9:12 PM  
Anonymous Faustus, M.D. said...

I agree, but I also think that the intensity of the bridge is necessary for the song to be effective. It shows that underneath the restraint is something vast and uncontrollable. Without it, the characters would be Potemkin people. But when they give us just a glimpse of the roiling emotion underneath, we understand how much the restraint is costing them.

4:26 AM  

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