In tribute to Stephen Sondheim, on ‘Being Alive’

In tribute to Stephen Sondheim, who passed away on November 26, 2021 at the age of 91, we are republishing this essay with videos about one of the many great songs he left us – and its new meaning now. —Editors

Stephen Sondheim (March 22, 1930 – November 26, 2021)

Originally published February 2, 2021

In January, a 35-year-old London bachelor named Gagan Bhatnagar spoke to The New York Times on the unique psychological challenge of enduring the coronavirus pandemic as a single person (“A pandemic is hard enough. For some, being single has made it harder”).

“The first few months I thought, ‘It’s okay, I can work on myself,'” Bhatnagar told the Times. “But then it just dragged on. One day I realized that it had been three months since I had touched a human being.

Reading Bhatnagar’s story, I can’t help but think of Broadway’s most famous bachelor, Bobby, the main character of Company, Sondheim’s 1970 musical about the pleasures and perils of marriage (Bobby the Bachelor was reimagined as Bobbie the Bachelor in a witty and welcome revival in 2018).

Graphic DC Metro Theater Arts.

In “Being Alive”, the last number of Act II of Company, Policeman, a New York bachelor who feels lonely on his 35th birthday, sings a bitter speech about marriage:

Someone to hold you too close,
Someone to hurt you too deep,
Someone to sit in your chair,
To spoil your sleep…

Someone who needs you too much
Someone who knows you too well,
Someone to pull you short
And put you through hell…

But the song’s tone and text change as Bobby gradually lets go of his cynicism and embraces his vulnerability. “Someone to hold you too close” turns into “Someone to hold me too close”, and his initial anger becomes an urgent call:

Somebody’s holding me too close
Someone hurt me too deeply,
someone sit in my chair
And ruin my sleep and make me aware
To be alive, to be alive.

Someone needs me too much
Someone knows me too well
Somebody pull me short
And put me through hell and back me up
To be alive.

For Bobby, finding someone to love becomes, in the words of Sondheim researcher Sandor Goodhart, a matter of “existential survival.”

I never understood how high the stakes were in this song until now, as we approach the year anniversary of the pandemic and its enforced social isolation.

The ending of Sondheim’s musical is (usually) ambiguous, and it’s unclear whether Bobby finds a partner or simply leaves his birthday party and resumes his life in a “town of strangers”.

But as the pandemic has made clearer, loneliness comes at a bitter cost. We humans are social animals and, as Martin Buber so aptly said, “life is about meeting people”.

With that in mind, let me share with you my top ten versions of “Being Alive”, in no particular order, all of which you can find right now on YouTube.

So many great performers, men and women, have put their stamp on this song, and each of these renditions reveals something different, from Adam Driver’s search to Bernadette Peters’ doubt to Raúl Esperza’s anger.

DeanJones

The original Bobby, former Disney star Dean Jones, puts his whole being into this song. I love it when the rest of the original cast, including Elaine Stritch, there in the studio recording the cast album, burst into spontaneous applause for Jones right after he nailed that final note, a G# .

Julien Ovenden

What a journey Ovenden takes you on in this version, live from the BBC Proms 2010 concert – Sondheim at 80. I like the slow build-up of the big finish here. (Was that Howard Dean’s scream at the very end?)

Adam Driver

This is the version, from Driver’s 2019 film Marriage Story, that audiences (i.e. non-Broadway fanatics) are probably most familiar with. Although Driver isn’t quite singing here – it’s more of a recitative – his exploration of every word and syllable of this song brings the audience closer to Sondheim’s text than perhaps any other version.

Patti LuPone

Patti LuPone’s version is technically flawless. I just wish she showed a little more vulnerability here, got closer to the character. To me it sounds like Evita singing “Being Alive”. But wow, those pipes.

Neil Patrick Harris

Neil Patrick Harris is an utterly convincing Bobby. Notice the tears swelling slightly in her eyes during this performance.

Bernadette Peters

I’ve heard Peters perform “Being Alive” several times in concert, and it’s obvious that his version rocks the house every time, whether in an intimate venue or in Carnegie Hall. Notice how her voice breaks a bit on the penultimate word of the song. It’s action, people.

Barbra Streisand

This live version from 2016 is like butter. As Streisand’s voice ages (she’s 78), she lends this song more truth, wisdom, and vulnerability.

Rosalie Craig

Craig, the star of 2018’s Gender Swap revival, is endearing here. I find myself encouraging his Bobbie to find happiness.

Ramin Karimloo

Karimloo, a former Phantom, is one of Broadway’s finest male singers, and this release shows you why.

Raul Esperza

It is “living being” par excellence. Esperza’s pain is palpable here, and no other performer has taken greater risks with Sondheim’s song. If I had to choose one version of “Being Alive” to recommend, it would be this one.

Bonus: Norm Lewis

Talk about dramatic range: Norm Lewis, the most formidable Javert, melts your heart in this version taken from “Being Alive”, a promo for Signature Theatre’s Simply Sondheim magazine (on view until March 26, 2021, in HD on Marquee TV).

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