Guido Contini is the energetic centerpiece of the musical Nine. He is a celebrity superstar, an actor and movie maker who writes, directs, performs in, and subtitles his own movies. He is a playboy control freak with charming film-biz charisma who compartmentalizes his life’s worries and deals with problems as they arise. The show is his world as he sees it– a thrilling voyeur’s vantage into the mind of a director of peerless talents.
In the face of his ever-fluctuating work atmosphere, seemingly the most constant thing in Guido’s life is love, and a never ending assortment of it, in many various forms. Through the show we meet his four loves, each occupying a different role in his life: His wife, his mistress, his muse, and his mother.
What also remains constant– though perhaps not conscious to Guido– is the way the people in his life are presented to the audience. As we see the world through his eyes, the action of the show gives us a clear idea of his worldview. The picture we are given is relatively bleak.
Every character in this show, barring a few exceptions, gets two songs. One is an introduction– a love song– and one is a rejection.
Guido’s introduction, the opening of the show, is effectively a love song to himself. He is an artist, an ambitious man who wants all of the best in his life. He wishes he could clone himself so he could be everywhere at once and sing duets with himself.
Each of his loves, then, are also introduced to us in a love song to Guido. Guido is not present for any of these.
His wife, Louisa, is the first of his harem we meet, as is perhaps appropriate for a wife. In her song, “My Husband Makes Movies,” she is standing by Guido and defending him to brutal paparazzi. She is a champion in this role, and has clearly done this many times before. However, as the music changes, she steps away from the reporters and into her own head, and we realize it is all a facade. She plays the role of the supporting wife, but that role is long behind her, as she explains. She is relatively emotionless in this section: remorseful, and regretful, but she is controlled. She has played the supporting wife so long that it is second nature to her– and her first nature is withering. We learn that she has given much up for Guido, and yet she knows that he is not loyal to her. There is much about his life she does not understand. That’s why the song is what it is: not “my husband is an excellent man,” or “I love my husband”– it’s only “My Husband Makes Movies,” and that is the most she can most honestly assert about him.
The second woman we meet is his mistress, Carla. She is sensual and maybe a bit of an airhead. These are both very clear from her introduction. Her song is “A Call from the Vatican”, and it plays dual roles: first, introducing Carla, and second, introducing the nature of their relationship. There is an obvious sexual element, but also a heightened, almost gleeful sense of sacrilege: they are breaking all the rules and are happy to do it. Guido is interrupted by his wife, and lies that this phone-sex call from his mistress is “a call from the vatican.” Meanwhile, Carla lists off, in the most grand, sexual, over-the-top-show-biz way, all the things she wants to do to Guido. It’s a great song that leaves Guido wanting more, and leaves him with the promise that more will come.
Guido’s third lover is introduced far later. We’re given glimpses of her in act one, but never a full look, as we will learn is emblematic of her relationship with Guido. Finally in the opening of Act Two we are given her song of introduction. Claudia, Guido’s muse, is a classy actress, keeping her relationship with Guido as professional as she can. However, her control is slipping. She can’t help but admit that she is in love with him, and it hurts her. Her introduction is technically two songs, though the first is more of a brief introduction to the second: She and Guido exchange words and reflect on the nature of their relationship. During this, it’s mentioned that Louisa actually called Claudia to come and see Guido, and Claudia does not wish to hurt her. Both women seem to understand that they are each important to their lover. Guido, however, is not in love with the real Claudia. As she states, he’s in love with someone he made up– the idea of her rather than the real thing. Indeed, the short song in which they speak to each other is quite different from the second song she sings alone. “A Man like You,” the introduction, is relatively upbeat, and Claudia is straightforward. She rejects Guido kindly. However, immediately following is her song of true introduction, “In A Very Unusual Way”. This song is the opposite: she is slow to explain her thoughts, she comes around to them in no straightforward manner. She says she “thinks” she’s in love with him, doesn’t know how long it’s lasted and how it started, but knows it won’t end. Her words ring like a schoolgirl crush: “you don’t know what you do to me / you don have a clue / you cant tell what its like to be me / looking at you.”
The last of Guido’s loves is his mother. She sings of her love for him in the title song “Nine.” Though this is obviously different from the other songs, being about parental affections rather than amorous attraction, it nonetheless adheres to the consistent structure Guido’s loves comply with: All of the women get an initial introduction that explains their relationship to Guido, a “valentine” of sorts. All of these women get a second song, too: a rejection. His mother’s song of rejection comes before the rest. In “The Bells of St. Sebastian,” Guido’s mother harangues him for stooping to receive the affections of a prostitute named Saraghina– a character who we will return to later.
Next we see Carla’s rejection song, “Simple.” It is the opposite of what we see in her first song. Here she is quiet, withdrawn, and serious. Her song is heartfelt and humble, no hint of the sensation of her first song: it is simple, drawing on simple things.
Claudia’s rejection is immediately next, tagging onto the end of Carla’s. We see Claudia here as we saw her first: straightforward, business-like, offering a polite rejection. However, there is no wavering in her stance now. Her mind is firmly made up, and she must move on.
And then comes Louisa’s rejection. In “Be on Your Own”, she is no longer controlled in her emotions. She is angry, and will gladly tell Guido so. She rejects the mask of support she’s worn for so long, saying there’s “no need to carry out this masquerade”. And when she leaves him, he is totally on his own.
And now is Guido’s own rejection song: a grim reprise of his introduction. Unlike the women, whose songs are totally different, his song is a complete replication of the first song’s theme: he hasn’t changed as a person at all, except to become more undone, and that is why he is where he is.
Nine is entirely an exploration of Guido’s world. So with this in mind, it’s important to consider the fact that all of his women get exactly two outlets for their feelings. Imagine the world of a man where every person is characterized by two single moments: their love, and their rejection.
And indeed, everyone in Guido’s life has these moments, except for three people. His Producer sings one song which isn’t a love song to Guido at all, but a love song to the art of performance in general (and also a rejection in the form of the female film critic’s jabs). The other notable people in Guido’s life to have only one song are Saraghina and Young Guido. The two are inextricably connected.
We can assume Saraghina is the reason Guido is the way he is. His mother states as much in a few lines before Saraghina’s introductory song, implying that all of Guido’s problems with love started with this woman. Saraghina teaches Guido to court and bed women– a skill set that he surely takes advantage of. Saraghina only has one love song. By the end of the show, she is the one woman in Guido’s life who never rejected him. And yet, she is also one who never really loved him, either. Her song is not so much a love song to Guido, but to love and sex and the “thrill of the chase” altogether. Still, Guido seems to hold her in high regard. He even calls her an “extraordinary woman.”
Once Guido’s carefully constructed pillar of lies crumble, Young Guido appears, at the very end of the show. He does no sing a Love or rejection song, but to sing something new for the show and for Guido: a reconciliation song. Here, Guido learns from his mistakes for the first time. He learns a real lesson. Guido has been set on a path by Saraghina– playfully seeking out every potential mate he can, unable to commit to any one. He has effectively never grown and experienced a true adult’s relationship. In “Getting Tall” Young Guido convinces Guido to grow up, and the finale reprises, Guido decides that he will move on and act his age at last.
This show paints a fascinating image of a man stunted by mature affections understood too early. By seeking out sexuality as a child, he finds himself trapped and unable to connect meaningfully with women as an adult. We understand the mind of a man who believes everyone is either completely taken with him, or in complete disdain of him. Fittingly, it is a child, or an avatar of childhood itself that convinces him otherwise. Children are resilient in that way: they’ll be yelled at by their parents or go through a bad split with a friend one minute, and be happily showering their friend or family member with affection the next. It is our twisted adult sensibilities and conceptions of romance that convince us to see our relationships with others so black and white. Ironically, by seeking out adult love from everyone who could provide it, Guido behaves in a childish way. And yet, Guido must learn things a child knows– things he was never able to really experience as child because Saraghina forced him to maturity too early. It is reconciling with his childhood self that forces him to see the error of his ways at last.
Guido’s brushes with love and rejection in Nine are at once familiar and yet difficult for the audience to fully understand. This is what makes Guido such a fascinating character to us, and surely to the characters around him: he is as enigmatic as he is energetic, and his magnetic personality is both hard to resist and yet a piece of his downfall. Nine creates startling, repeated examples of duality, in the people around Guido and Guido himself, related to love and how we love, and rejection and why we reject. And yet, in the end, we are told it is truly all more simple than we can grasp– something even a child would know instinctively.