Sondheim and False Opposites

On the way to the gym last night The Boy and I were forced to walk past the Walter Kerr Theater on 48th.  Passing in front of the theater we were suddenly surrounded by a jovial mob, bubbling with excitement to see 2 legends of the theatah (Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch) step into the leading roles of A Little Night Music.  In the general frenzy we were forced up against a wall next to a merch seller while the sea of people swarmed around us. The Boy and I spent a few seconds telling each other how we wished we were seeing this until I decided to ask if there was standing room… and there was.

We hurried home to change (into some fancier wife-beaters), then ran back to the theater and positioned our sweaty selves at the back of the orchestra.

The show is great- although long to stand through- and at the end the full company lead by both Peters and Stritch received minutes worth of applause and cat calls. Ten feet to my right Stephen Sondheim stood and clapped proudly.  It was a pretty good moment. I looked from Sondheim, to the bowing cast, to the audience and back to Sondheim.  In my ear the boyfriend whispers: “he’s just so amazing.”

I am always trying to articulate what it is that Sondheim does right.  And while an entire blog could be dedicated to picking apart his lyrics and music… I don’t have that kind of time.  However,  last night while pondering Madame Armfeldt’s lyric “a pleasurable means to a measurable end” I was able to isolate one thing that he uses that always moves me.  I’m going to call it false-opposites.

Sondheim is really good at setting up lines that parallel each other except for 1 important word that changes. Often times it feels like these words have contrasting meanings because they are set up opposites, but really their literal definitions do not intersect.

Example time. Consider this lyric from the song Being Alive from Company: “alone is alone, not alive.”

Sondheim has set up Alone and Alive as opposites, when really they aren’t mutually exclusive by definition. But by choosing these words to contrast each other he makes the strong statment that you aren’t living if you are all alone. He also does it with 6 words.

Another example of this comes from Into The Woods: “Children can only grow from something you love to something you lose.”  Love and Hate are opposites. Lost and Found are opposites.  In the middle of the thought he changes from a statement of attraction to a statement of possession.

I love things like this. And of course the false opposites are all alliterative. Everything is just… spot on.

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