Yesterday Is Gone: Sondheim in 'Marriage Story' and 'Lady Bird'

In a classic New York piano bar, somebody plays the opening notes to a Broadway standard. Charlie (Adam Driver) immediately recognises the song, and emits a sigh of understanding, as if to say, “oh, of course”. Surrounded by his theatre company and clutching his drink, he begins to sing. 

Marriage Story is not a musical. Focusing on the relationship of Nicole (Scarlet Johansson) and Charlie, two theatre makers in New York, it is Noah Baumbach’s most biting film. It begins with each person extolling everything they love about the other: Nicole is infectious, she is a mother who plays with her son, Charlie loves being a Dad, he’s clear about what he wants. It is such a tender and loving way to open a film, but any sense of security is quickly lost when the montage stops, revealing its setting; a family mediator’s office in which the couple is sorting out their impending divorce. 

Marriage Story is not a musical, but it features two songs from the Stephen Sondheim musical Company: ‘Being Alive’ for Charlie, and ‘You Could Drive a Person Crazy’ for Nicole. First appearing on Broadway in 1970, Company focuses on Robert (aka Bobby), an eternal bachelor, and his five sets of married friends, surrounding his 35th birthday. Told in vignettes, the musical explores the highs, lows, complications, and longings which accompany both married and single life, as Bobby wrestles over whether he should finally settle down or not. A musical about marriage in a movie about divorce ― by including these short little interludes of song, Baumbach reveals through the layers of the show, and the film, just how each character fares in the divorce. 

In his book Finishing the Hat, Sondheim says that each of his songs are like a small play. If we isolate each of the musical performances from Company in Marriage Story, these “plays” describe the same information about each character, and their trajectory within the narrative, as the film. The use of the songs happen organically throughout the film (Charlie and Nicole work within the New York theatre scene, after all), yet by including them, these moments surrender to the truth that some emotions are expressed better through song. 

Out of all of Sondheim’s shows and ballads, ‘Being Alive’ sticks in my throat the most (the emotion!). The song starts out soft, as Bobby/Charlie complains about all the drawbacks and suffocation which comes with relationships and marriage (“Someone to hold you too close / someone to hurt you too deep / someone to sit in my chair / and ruin my sleep.”) However, as the song continues, the emotions shift; the singing becomes bolder, coming from deep within (within the heart just as much as the diaphragm). Accepting the new desire for a relationship, the pronoun in the lyrics become personal: where there was once an abstract ‘you’, a personal ‘me’ surfaces (“Somebody crowd me with love”, and “I’ll always be there”). Driver’s emotional tones in the film shift with pin-point precision, not only when the song calls for it (it ends with a passionate belt), but because he is going through the journey, too. 

There is something magnetic about watching Adam Driver sing ‘Being Alive’. A man known for his hugeness, he adjusts the short microphone stand up to his own grand stature, all the while speak-singing the dialogue which is interspersed throughout the song (“Want something! Want something”). Singing the dialogue in ‘Being Alive’? Who does that? 

Let me be clear: usually when someone sings ‘Being Alive’, they sing as Bobby, so the dialogue interspersed throughout by Bobby’s friends is usually ignored. In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim wrote that “dialogue is included [in his songs] only when necessary to understand the content and flow of the song.” Within the context of the show, the dialogue of encouragement from Bobby’s friends echoes as the voices he thinks of, all the encouragement he has observed throughout the show. However, within Marriage Story, these moments of dialogue are spoken somewhat as a mutter: it is Charlie speaking to himself, opening his own eyes to what he is missing after the divorce (“You’ve got so many reasons for not being with someone / but Robert, you haven’t got one good reason for being alone”). 

‘Being Alive’ was not meant to be Company’s finale, and Sondheim has always been vocal about it never being his favourite song. However, it works so well here, especially as the song’s use by Baumbach is not the film’s conclusion. Earlier in the film, Nicole says to her lawyer that she was making herself small in the relationship, feeding Charlie’s “aliveness.” So, what does it mean for Charlie to be alive?

When Bobby sings ‘Being Alive’ at the end of Act II, he is singing about finally being ready to settle down and be in a relationship. It is hopeful, maybe even triumphant. Yet, I’ve always felt the song is about loneliness and longing. It is here, within these emotions, that Charlie sings this song in a New York piano bar: Charlie with his couchless apartment where he has to sit on the floor, alone, singing for someone to crowd him with love, to force him to care. Bobby has never had a marriage or a serious relationship of his own, so what he sings about comes from observation. Within the context of Charlie’s divorce, however, Charlie knows exactly what it means for someone to “always be there, as frightened as you / at being alive.” Or, maybe, he never really did, and in a moment of ‘you never know what you have until it’s gone’, this song is his realisation of taking Nicole and his marriage for granted. 

According to Sondheim, ‘Being Alive’ is also about the importance of compromise in a relationship. Nicole compromised too much of herself in the marriage. Instead of pursuing a promising career as a movie star, she decided to stay in New York with Charlie, and act in his plays, following wherever his career takes them, such as a residency in Amsterdam. Her leaving Charlie and moving back to Los Angeles finally allows her to choose her own path. 

Thus, she gets her own Sondheim moment, a few scenes earlier than Charlie’s. Along with her mother and sister, Nicole sings a playful rendition of ‘You Could Drive a Person Crazy’, from the first act of Company. With an Andrews Sisters-esque harmony, the song is performed in the musical by Bobby’s three girlfriends, as they sing about everything which makes a relationship with Bobby toxic: he can drive a person crazy, he’s deeply maladjusted, if only he weren’t so handsome… 

Within the musical, the song sets up Bobby’s three girlfriends, Bobby’s flaws, and reinstates his inability to settle down. Although sung by April, Kathy and Marta, the song is in service of Bobby and his characterisation. Contrastingly, in Marriage Story, the song signals Nicole’s freedom from Charlie’s magnetism, his gaslighting, and their life-force sucking relationship. With Nicole in the middle, she sings, surrounded by friends and family in her sunny LA home, with a big smile on her face. Sick of compromising too much, (“Bobby is my hobby and I’m givin’ it up!”), she is happy in her new life in LA. 

Charlie, however, finally learns the lesson of compromise. After insisting throughout the film that they are a “New York Family”, despite being married and having their son born in LA, in the final scene of the film, Charlie reveals that he is taking a residency at UCLA, and will be in LA for a few months, close to his son. Whether or not the family would spend some time in LA was a major point of contention within Charlie and Nicole’s marriage ― and divorce ― being something Nicole always wanted to discuss, but Charlie brushed over. Ending the film with Charlie’s relocation to LA, ‘Being Alive’’s lesson of compromise comes to fruition. 

Yet it also extends Sondheim’s message to include an extra character; whereas Company focuses on romantic relationships, Marriage Story is also a family story. Having a child complicates a relationship beyond just Bobby’s internal hang ups, and while also being personal, it is the child which is at the center of Charlie and Nicole’s story, something Company never considers. Which makes the use of the musical’s songs all the more… courageous, for its characters, no? Perhaps it is not necessarily only Nicole whom Charlie sings about in ‘Being Alive’, but his son, too. His family. 

Sondheim is also used in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017). A coming-of-age story set in the titular character’s senior year of high school in Sacramento, California, Lady Bird auditions for, and performs in, the school’s production of Merrily We Roll Along. A New York musical from 1981 about three friends, Merrily begins when the friends are successful writers in their 40s (successful, but distanced from each other), and, with each scene, walks itself backwards, de-aging to when they first met as young and wide-eyed students. 

Like Frank, Mary, and Charley at the end of the musical, Lady Bird has aspirations to go to New York and do something big and meaningful with her life. She cannot wait to grow up. However, Merrily, through its very structure, longs to be young, to reach that innocence and naivety of youth once again.

An aside ― It is interesting to note Sondheim, Baumbach, and Gerwig’s status as distinctively New York artists, whilst also factoring in the prevalence of California in both Marriage Story and Lady Bird. The dueling perceptions of East Coast versus West Coast in regard to art and culture are major themes of both films; by transporting Sondheim into California, these sort of divides are blurred.

There aren’t any songs from the show performed in its entirety in Lady Bird. Instead we see just snippets from rehearsals and the production night shown. Yet these collections of lyrics all echo the same ideas your older self would want to impart onto your younger, wilder counterpart: the importance of dreams and patience (“Dreams don’t die so keep an eye on your dreams / And before you know where you are, there you are”), and keeping by your friends (“Hey old friends / whaddya say old friends?” are the lyrics heard in the film ― the song ‘Old Friends’ is about how times change, but to remember the importance of friendship). 

What is interesting about Merrily’s history is that it was originally performed by a cast of teenagers. Since the show de-ages, this at first seems like a logical choice. However, this casting did not translate well on stage, and a lot of writers and critics consider this the possible reason for why the show originally flopped. It has since been performed by an adult cast in revivals. Seeing teenagers like Lady Bird and her best friend Julie on stage acting as adults, living through experiences they cannot even comprehend yet (such as divorce, infidelity, career highs and lows), looks false on a group of fresh-faced teenagers. They sing about old friends, regret, and cynicism without fully understanding what the words mean. The show should never be performed by people so young; however, it is the (backward) tumbling pace of the show which reflects so well in Lady Bird’s tumbling forward. 

After the show, the musical’s director Father Leviatch sits forlornly against the wall of the crowded post-opening foyer, lamenting of his cast; “they didn’t understand it.” Indeed, after the musical, Lady Bird continues to dive head-first into chasing her dreams, sacrificing her friendship with Julie along the way. Luckily, this does not last, and Lady Bird reunites with Julie before heading off to New York; the pair realise the meaning of Merrily and come together again as friends just in time, before resentment is allowed to build.

It is not only friendships, though, that Lady Bird learns to hold onto. Merrily’s themes of wanting to recapture youth and patience are reflected in the film’s final moments. Lady Bird stands alone in New York City, on the phone to her mother in a moment of appreciation of everything her mother had done for her. These last images are interspersed with moments of quiet reflection as she drives around Sacramento in the loving, golden light. Dreams don’t die so keep an eye on your dreams / and before you know where you are, there you are. It’s a moment of stillness, and of being present ― being alive, even. Hold onto youth and these days of home, because before you know it, it’ll be but a distant memory. 

A step further ― with a group of friends in a car, Lady Bird sings the opening lines of the titular song from Merrily We Roll Along (Yesterday is done / see the pretty countryside / Merrily we roll along, roll along / bursting with dreams). The film’s opening moments introduce Lady Bird, as she talks about her dreams to go to New York, or “somewhere with culture”. Sitting in the passenger side of her mother’s car, the Californian countryside passes by outside her window. She’s bursting with dreams, baby!

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are frequent collaborators, as well as partners in love and life, so it is unsurprising that they would both use Sondheim as an intertextual device. Gerwig once described Sondheim as one of her favourite artists, “period, of all time”, and praises his cunning ability to balance ache and joy. This balance of ache and joy, the complexity of love, growth, and coming of age, as well as figuring out one’s place in the world, are all themes which span across Baumbach, Gerwig, and Sondheim’s work ― and perhaps their lives, too. In a New York Times interview, Baumbach made reference to his own divorce by asserting that Marriage Story is “not autobiographical ― it’s personal, and there’s a true distinction in that.” The distinction is hard to pin down while watching the film, but Baumbach’s intent is given precision through the use of Sondheim’s music.

Sondheim has been having a bit of a moment as of late. Richard Linklater recently announced he is to film Merrily We Roll Along (across a 20 year period), Stephen Speilberg’s own adaptation of West Side Story will hit cinemas in 2020, and this year, Assassins was the school musical in The Politician; Daniel Craig sings ‘Losing My Mind’ from Follies in Knives Out; and I guess ‘Send in the Clowns’ from A Little Night Music is used in Joker. There hasn’t been this much Sondheim on screen since Glee ended. However, what is special about Marriage Story is how it engages in the music, and with it, the songs gain greater emotional value, taking on new meaning. By bringing these two musicals into their films and character’s lives, Baumbach and Gerwig breathe new life into both Merrily We Roll Along and Company, which rarely get revived in Australia, let alone film adaptations through which they might reach a wider mainstream audience. 

To be truthful, it was while I was on the train home after seeing Marriage Story, listening to the cast recording of Company, that I let the full emotions of the film take over. Listening to ‘Being Alive’ again, the tears which I expected to spring during the film finally arrived. 

Marriage Story and Lady Bird are now available on Netflix.

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Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She recently completed an Honours thesis in Screen Studies and has written for Junkee, 4:3, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @teencineteq and @theclairencew.

Claire White