Love, Rejection, and Guido Contini

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.

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Joyful Celebration in the Face of Death: Jonathan Larson’s Rent

A while back, I saw a Facebook post where some theatre folk were sharing their theater culture’s pre-show traditions. These are always wildly different, but invariably bizarre, fun, and full of energy. The comment that made me stop and think was one about a high school’s pre-show activities for their production of Rent. The poster said they typically did some fun sort of hype-up activity, but didn’t do it for their more serious shows– Rent included– because it wasn’t appropriate.

This took me off-guard. Sure, Rent is a serious show, but it’s never one that I’ve considered so overly serious that any celebration beforehand is bad. In fact, after some thought, I’d wager even the opposite- that Rent is serious, and you must celebrate. The seriousness of Rent isn’t the most important part of it. Rent is about much more than dying of AIDS and battling drug addiction. These are present and powerful entities in the show, but they are never the most important piece. Rent is, at its core, a celebration. Rent’s message is not one of sorrow and regret, but one of celebration in spite of, and even of, death itself.

To fully see this aspect of Rent, I think it’s important to start at the root. The root here is Jonathan Larson. 

Jonathan Larson’s works all have some similarities. First of all, Larson was as much a fan of the broadway theaters his parents took him to as a child as he was of the rock scene exploding around him in his youth. His works blend these passions: his vision of the rock musical lead Jonathan Larson to introduce himself, as described in the coffee table book, by saying, “I’m the future of musical theatre.”

Second, Larson lived– and worshipped– the “bohemian” life. He had spent significant time living in run-down, one-room apartments in NYC. Anthony Rapp talks a bit about Larson’s apartment situation in his memoir Without You: Larson had to throw down the key from a window, since the building had no way to buzz in visitors, and his bathtub was in the kitchen. Larson and his friends would host Christmastime “peasant’s feasts” in this rundown apartment, hosting revolving groups of friends who couldn’t go home for the holidays for huge potluck meals. Larson glorifies this lifestyle in his most popular works– Tick Tick BOOM’s cast recording includes a song called “Boho Days”, where Larson recounts essentially autobiographical details of living in a horrible, dirty, crowded, and wonderful apartment. Rent is, in every sense, a serenade to the artists and alternatives struggling to keep up their passion, and survive, too. 

Larson’s works are almost all autobiographical in some sense. Indeed, many memorable aspects of Rent come directly from Larson’s life. The project began as a collaboration, but Larson’s drive to write about his own experience turned Rent into a solo project instead. Jonathan says, as quoted in Without You, “I wrote this show about my life. About the lives of my friends. And some of my friends are gone. And I really miss them.” It’s important to note that the values of these shows are as much Larson’s values– and this shines through clearly.

Larson is not mourning the pain of his “starving artist” lifestyle in Rent, not really. Neither are the characters in the show.

Rent is hardly a somber dirge. From its outset, it is never exceedingly negative about the life of the alternative. The opening number “Rent” is an electric burst of energy while singing about being poor and unable to afford housing. “Light my Candle” is a sensual number in which Mimi asks Roger to light the candle she’ll use to heat heroin. “Another Day” is an argument between friends and lovers, and yet it’s upbeat pop-rock anthem. Even some of the more somber moments in the show are written in a positive way. For example, take the mortality-realizing “Will I”. This song is not a sad, slow piece, as it perhaps would be in another show. In Rent, it is comfortably mid-tempo, accompanied not by dramatic orchestral strings but by a simple piano and guitar. It doesn’t sound overtly sad, especially not with its soaring harmonies. The round format combined with the lyrics is rather bleak– a nod to the fact that nearly every character in the show is worried about dying alone and being forgotten, or touched in some way by the miserable realities of addiction and AIDS. Nonetheless, the song is set firmly in Gb major, not a dramatic minor key. (Typically, major keys denote a “happy” or “light” sound, while minor keys invoke a “sad” or “dark” sound.) “I’ll Cover You Reprise”, which takes place at Angel’s funeral, is a soulful gospel anthem, not a sad orchestral piece, and is ALSO set in a major key: this time, B major. Taking away the lyrics, neither of these would sound very sad or negative at all. 

The show remains positive and even hopeful in moments that would be anything but in a different show. In fact, Rent goes out of its way to do so. Although Rent is only based loosely on the original La Boheme opera, it distinctly turns away from the source material at the ending: instead of ending on the death of Mimi’s character, Rent ends with Mimi living and the group celebrating another year gone by. This massive change is not made without reason. Larson clearly had something to say in making this decision.

Of course, Rent represents life and death for other reasons, as well. Jonathan Larson died the night of the show’s off-broadway preview premier. The performance the next day, as per the decision of the team and cast, was to be staged as a simple concert sing-through for the friends and family of Jonathan Larson. The cast decided that it had to be performed in Larson’s honor, but getting caught up in the production itself seemed inappropriate– having the cast simply sit and honor the work Jonathan created was the idea. They set up tables on the stage, lined with throat lozenges and tissues; the audience was jammed with people, filling the sits, overflowing into the aisles, standing in the back. In Without You, Rapp explains now the momentum of the show quickly took control. Despite, or perhaps because of their mourning, the show’s energy was more electric than it had ever been. As the show drove on, the cast battled through emotion and performed powerfully. By “La Vie Boheme,” the energy reached fever pitch. As Anthony Rapp writes, “it was clear that the time for sitting down was over.” The actors were up dancing on the tables, singing loud and joyful, and the rest of the show was decided to be staged as written to enormous cheers. Larson’s work was performed as a celebration of his words and music, and that power was overwhelming.

At the end of the show, the audience sat in stunned silence and stillness until a single voice called, “thank you, Jonathan Larson.”

Rent went on, after some thoughtful re-writes by the rest of the artistic team, to open off-broadway as scheduled and on broadway at the Nederlander Theatre later the same year. It did not die with Jonathan Larson.

I hope you can see the parallel: Rent’s message as a show is not just one of celebrating life and death. Rent itself and its development as a whole is a message of celebrating life and death.

Jonathan Larson did not build Rent to be a tragedy. It is not a sorrowful show. Rent is not about death. Everything else about the show– its energy, its strength, its joy– is far more important than the sorrowful elements. The seriousness of Rent is besides the point. Rent is a celebration. It is, as Rapp writes, “a valentine to bohemia,” the product of a childhood of rock and roll, Sondheim, and opera. It is an autobiographical documentary of Larson’s lifestyle and love, and a story– both on and off stage– of friendship and love. And indeed, it tells a tale of loss– but there’s a reason the show doesn’t end in loss. There’s a reason the problems in the show are resolved whether through actual solution or simply the characters’ acceptance of these shortcomings. The loss in this show isn’t a product– it’s the catalyst. Loss is not something to resent, and it is not the end. Rent tells us that loss gives way to something else far more important. The show tells us to love the people we have while we have them. It tells us to work on your art for yourself, even when you are starving and homeless. It tells us to love and love freely, wildly, and without regard for social norms. It tells us that true friendship will weather anything, even if it isn’t completely invincible to trials. And most importantly, it tells us that loss is only temporary– that all that comes from loss is far more important than the instant of mourning.

Rent is not about mourning. It is, out of memory for Larson and of his choices in the show, not a piece to cause sorrow. Rent, in its totality, is a wholehearted, endless celebration of love, life, and yes, even loss. 

A Deeply Personal Analysis of Company

Company is one of my favorite musicals. As a big Sondheim fan, I can comfortably say it’s my favorite of his works. 

One of my favorite things about it is the fact that I’m still not sure I get it. In fact, it seems to change in meaning every time I listen.

The first time I saw it, I knew next to nothing about it. I had previously learned the song “Another Hundred People” as a potential audition song for a show once. I listened to the title song on the way to the performance in some half-hearted effort to get the basic lay of the land and recognized “Not Getting Married Today” from the Glee cast cover. The rest was a mystery. I was riveted, and loved it, and at the end I said, “so this is a musical about a guy whose friends are fucking with his head and ruining his life.”

Then I drove home and cried inconsolably while listening to “Being Alive” because I was majorly depressed and incredibly lonely at the time and some part of my brain connected this song about love to the friends I was yearning for, and it broke me. “Make me alive / make me confused / mock me with praise / let me be used / vary my days / but alone is alone / not alone…”

I listened to it on and off for a few weeks after that. I was working out my interpretation of it then— his friends aren’t fucking with him, they’re trying to help him. It’s a show about friendship. Sort of. But also it’s not. And his friends totally are fucking his life up, sometimes, accidentally. Actually, do his friends even like him? Okay, scratch everything.

Right around this time I started dating a girl. She was really sweet and nice, and I thought I could totally have a relationship with her. I kind of wasn’t sure. All the pieces were there, and I even enjoyed hanging out with her, but I just never felt the way I always thought you were supposed to feel about people you’re dating. I was listening to the show, and I thought, this is what the show’s really about, throwing yourself into relationships, giving it a try, letting love happen. “Hey, buddy, don’t be afraid it won’t be perfect. The only thing to be afraid of really is that it won’t be!”

I gave the relationship a try and we broke up two months later.

So I listened to it some more, thought about it some more. I noticed the recurring theme of duality in the show. I think I’m onto something with that one for sure. I went through the show song by song and broke down how each song was like a self-contained lesson in polar opposites. In the title song, Bobby loves his friends, but also his friends are suffocating him, and he says marriage is what life’s all about, but he loves the “no strings, good times” of good old-fashioned friendship. In “The Little Things you do Together”, relationships are fun but also hellholes of arguing and the best thing you can do is get a divorce. “Sorry-Grateful” is like an entire thesis on the subject: “You’re sorry-grateful / regretful-happy … which has nothing to do with / all to do with her”. I could break this down for literally every song in the show, but I’ll save the words— just think about it yourself, if you’re familiar. Some of the songs are directly foiling each other, too. “Have I got a Girl for You” directly contrasts with “Someone is Waiting”— one’s about setting Bobby up with a lady and how marriage sucks, and the other is about how Bobby doesn’t want set up with a lady and there must be a perfect one out there to marry. The act 1 finale, “Marry me a Little” is a foil to the act 2 finale, “Being Alive”— while the former is about how Bobby is ready for a relationship as long as it’s easy-breezy, the latter is about being ready for a relationship as long as someone is there to “put you through hell” and be there for you, as much as you’re there for them. And then there’s the characters themselves. Do his friends hate him or love him? Who knows! Do they hold him in contempt or pity him? Hard to say! Is Bobby happy with them? Absolutely, and also absolutely not. The show at its core is a contradiction: It’s a story about love without being a love story.

Pleased with my analytic efforts, I kept those thoughts in my back pocket and left them to stew a bit longer. I finally gave the female version a listen. Bobby becomes Bobbie, bachelor becomes bachelorette. I loved the concept, but was turned off when I actually started listening. Seemingly a small change- but it changes the entire show. I was unsure if I liked this change. The issues became entirely different. This is especially clear in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” where a brief dialogue break wherein the female singers would shower Bobby with impassioned but largely trivial insults became instead a trio of male singers showering Bobbie with cries like “that time of the month?” and “dirty feminist!” A new song “Tick Tock” adds to Bobbie’s plate the complex layer of running out of time to have children and start a family. “Have I got a Girl for You” describes a potential hook-up to Bobby as “dumb”, and “Have I got a guy for You” describes the same (genderswapped) hook-up to Bobbie as “smart”. The descriptions of what Bobby envisions in the perfect woman is different from how Bobbie describes her perfect man in “Someone is Waiting”. Bobby: “My blue-eyed Sarah, warm Joanne / Sweet Jenny, loving Susan / Crazy Amy.” Bobbie: “My loyal Harry, loving Paul / Cute Jamie, happy Peter / Handsome Larry”. The only similarity between the two, notably, is the word “loving”. These differences are small, but manage to create something totally different. Call me dramatic, but it felt like an entire other show— all of these changes had implications I wasn’t sure how to parse.

Shortly after this development, something else happened in my romantic life. I had the opportunity to enter into a relationship with a guy. Super sweet, getting out of a bad situation, had a ton of love to give. And while I wanted to jump in, something was stopping me— some gnawing instinct saying “this isn’t quite right.” It’s not that I wasn’t into it, I was, and I wanted the relationship. I was coming out of a bad situation of my own, too, and I wanted the comfort and camaraderie and affection and yet something was holding me back. 

One night, while I was turning the prospect of this relationship over and over in my mind, I took the long way home from a rehearsal and listened to the female version again.

And suddenly this version made sense.

It was totally different, but also it wasn’t. In fact, in print, very few of the situations are different at all. The obvious difference lies in the gender swapping, but the rest are hard to verbalize beyond “men’s problem’s” and “women’s problems”. Ironically, the problems are basically exactly the same. Bobby: Dealing with identifying lust versus love, difficulties finding the right mate, and commitment issues. Bobbie: Dealing with identifying lust versus love, difficulties finding the right mate, and commitment issues. They’re the exact same problems, but shaded so slightly differently. Bobby and Bobbie both convince their Steward(ess) significant others to stay in “Barcelona”, and both are shocked when they succeed, and both cry out “oh god!” when they realize they’re stuck with their hookup another day. And yet, these situations feel so markedly different. I think of the women I know who get stuck with lame dudes, and it feels so different from the men I know who get stuck with lame girls— perhaps I’m lingering on this point too long, but it’s just so hard to explain these nuances. There’s something to be said about what women expect from men in relationships and what men expect from women in relationships, but when you get down to that, too, the answers are more or less the same on cold, unfeeling paper: love, sex, happiness, comfort. Yet, every instance of these things are slightly different in concept to these two genders, just by virtue of what it means to live and be raised as one of these two genders. 

It’s totally different. And yet, really, it’s not that different at all. We all want the same things, but we don’t, really. There’s that duality idea again.

Company, about Bobby, made me decide to leap into a relationship with a girl. Company, about Bobbie, made me reconsider leaping into a relationship with a guy. Maybe I just knew better the second time around– or maybe I missed out big time.

I’m still not sure I get Company. I think the easiest, and most complete interpretation is this: life is hard. Romance is hard. Shit is weird and love is complicated. Your friends are great and also are what is holding you back. Finding the right person is almost impossible and even when you do find them, it’s never going to be perfect, but it’s still better than being alone, unless it’s not. Trying to weigh all the pros and cons of everything will leave you in the dust, so give in to the unknown. But when you give into the unknown in romance you’ll probably end up screwing some less-than-perfect people, but that’s kind of okay too. This seems like an anticlimactic point to arrive at, but it’s truthful, and it’s real. I don’t know if my life experiences actually changed my interpretation, or if this was coincidence entirely, but they felt connected, somehow. Maybe this is a show you just need to live a while to really understand. 

I don’t know if I really get it at all, but I love it. 

I guess that’s alright. That’s pretty much the show in a nutshell, anyway.