Now You Know

Funny enough it’s almost exactly 40 years ago to the day of his death this week at the too young age of 91 that Stephen Sondheim taught me a life lesson I continue to live by to this day.

Predictably enough, it was while I was sitting in a prized orchestra seat of a then-new Sondheim musical, Merrily We Roll Along, listening to one of his lyrical words of wisdom.

Unpredictably enough, and to this day in my mind unfairly enough, that show would also turn into one of his biggest Broadway flops. 

Flop? Says who??

Though as one of a very select group of people in attendance at the next to last Broadway performance of the original cast of Merrily in 1981, I can only tell you that in my mind that production and that show was, and will always be, a huge success.

Profound.  Moving.  Funny.  Insightful.  Scathing.  Ironic.  Wise.  Deep.  Joyful. 

And smart. 

Oh, so smart. 

What more can you ask for from any piece of art?

Is it selfish to say more more more!!!!?

Oh, the song.  It’s not one of the famous ones, popular ones or even obscure, uncovered and belatedly lauded ones. 

Though it is the first act curtain. 

And its three-word title has immeasurably endured, helping me to process some of the very worst times in my life right after and long after they happened.  Then.  And now.

What’s it called?

 It’s called….Now You Know.

Me too!

A jazzy little number sung by two best friends of a famous young composer who has cheated on his wife with the lead actress in his new hit musical.

They’re divorced and he’s on the courthouse steps, having just lost a bitter and salacious custody battle for their young son.  And though his lovely, kind-hearted ex admits she still loves him she confesses she just can’t get past his infidelity and forgive him for the man he’s become.

So she’s moving thousands of miles away and taking the kid with her.

He’s blind-sided and suddenly devastated at the realization of life without them. 

What’s worse, it gets played out publicly in front of a slew of venal and vindictive reporters and cameras.

Very much the vibe

It’s that moment when even the heel-iest of heels knows they will never truly be the same, much less recover.  Forget about the rest of us.

That scene was set in 1966 and I was a recently out gay guy in my twenties with no thought of ever having a kid, much less a wife.  But boy, could I relate.

Me in the audience

Because it was about the type of hurt and devastation that in some way we will all be forced to experience, and more than once.  That time when:

a. We’ve f-cked up royally and at great personal cost.  Or,

b. We’ve had an unexpected death or perhaps devastating other loss.  Or,   

c. There’s been a terrible betrayal, to us or by us we can never get beyond.  Or,

d. We finally accept that the bold, implied or sealed promises made to us by others, or to ourselves, will NEVER, EVER happen the way we imagined.

We’re lost.  Bigly.  Big time.  And there’s no chance we can be who we once were.  Ever again.

OK well yeah, but also this:

Here’s what Mr. Sondheim had to say to that:

All right

Now you know:

Life is crummy

Well, now you know

I mean, big surprise:

People love you and tell you lies

Bricks can tumble from clear blue skies

Put your dimple down

Now you know

Okay, there you go —

Learn to live with it

Now you know

It’s called flowers wilt

It’s called apples rot

It’s called thieves get rich

And saints get shot

It’s called God don’t answer prayers a lot

Okay, now you know

Okay, now you know

Now forget it

Don’t fall apart at the seams

It’s called letting go your illusions

And don’t confuse them with dreams

Yes sir, quite a blow?

Don’t regret it

And don’t let’s go to extremes

It’s called, what’s your choice?

It’s called, count to ten

It’s called, burn your bridges, start again

You should burn them every now and then

Or you’ll never grow!

Because now you grow

That’s the killer is

Now you grow

You’re right, nothing’s fair

And it’s all a plot

And tomorrow doesn’t look too hot —

Right, you better look at what you’ve got:

Over here,  hello?

Okay, now you know…

– Sondheim, 1981

All the feels

It’s called letting go your ILLUSIONS, and don’t confuse them with DREAMS?

Are you kidding me????

What about, burn your bridges, start again, you should BURN THEM EVERY NOW AND THEN OR YOU’LL NEVER GROW?!   With the lyrical promise, written by someone older and wiser and infinitely more talented that,  that’s the killer…NOW YOU GROW??

Seriously???

Channeling this Meryl energy entirely

You mean, it’s okay to walk away when you’ve tried everything and it’s not working?  And there IS hope at the end of the tunnel?

But how will that work? 

Well, you better look at what you’ve got

Wait, you mean…oh…..your friends….who despite everything are still there and literally singing to you  —

Over here, hello???

Wait, that’s what it’s really about???

I mean, it still slays me.

GENIUS

How he knew so much, put it so succinctly and rhymed so simply, completely and, yes, tunefully.

It’s called devoting a lifetime to your art and never taking the easy way out.

– It’s called consistently mentoring generations of young writers for decades, despite your schedule, because in your teens you were lucky enough, through a family connection, to be mentored by one of the great lyricists of the American musical theatre, Oscar Hammerstein, and always promised to pay it forward.

– It’s called staying current with new work in the theatre for the next half century instead of spending your time reliving and pining for the good old days.

Always one step ahead

– It’s called daring to be bad, in your work and in your life, in order to become good.

– It’s called not letting it all go to your head and knowing at the end of the day it’s just you, your beloved Blackwing pencils and some paper late at night, trying to make a hat.

The thing about Sondheim is not that he didn’t know how good he was.  It was that he didn’t dwell on it, tried to do better and always knew deep down that he wasn’t perfect.

As he so eloquently stated in one of the short verses of the above song I didn’t mention:

I mean, socks have holes,
I mean, roads have bumps,

They make meatheads champs and nice guys chumps…
I mean, even cream of wheat has lumps.

#RIP.  From a fan.

Merrily We Roll Along – “Now You Know”

Magic Meryl

You could do worse in quarantine than spending four and a half hours with your spouse and Meryl Streep.  But that’s what happened this weekend and, in a word, it was glorious.

Me, all weekend

No, I’m not just saying this because I’m a gay guy.  I mean, of course that’s part of it.  We gays like strong, insanely talented performers, especially women, who in real life speak out and don’t take crap from anyone. 

But that’s not really THE reason.

It’s mostly because, well, with Meryl you know you’ll always be well taken care of, always in good hands.  Quibble if you must with any one of her movies or performances (Note:  For the record, I have ZERO quibbles) but that’s like saying you had a bad piece of chocolate.

… and I would watch that too!

Some brands might be better than others, but ultimately are any of them ever anything but delicious?

Which brings us to Netflix’s The Prom and HBO Max’s Let Them All Talk.

Here’s what to know.  Both are now streaming, both feature HER in light and dark polar opposite characters that suck you instantly under her spell and, at just over two hours apiece, both enable you to avoid thinking about Covid-19 or quarantine or President #Loser even just once.

Isn’t that what the movies and movie acting are all about?

That, and extremely dramatic entrances #Miranda4Ever

Yeah, well tell that to the two idiot NY Times film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis who recently wrote a long list/article on the Times’ 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st century and very purposely left HER off it.

Forget what she did in Devil Wears Prada, The Iron Lady and even Julie and Julia.  It’s Keanu Reeves who is the fourth great actor of the 2000s for what he does in all those John Wick movies because the way he embodies this slightly ridiculous action hero…is just beautiful to watch.

Uh yeah, same here Meryl.

But I digress, and no, I’m not kidding.  They actually DID write that. 

This is what happens when you are so universally lauded for your artistic abilities decade after decade.  Some credentialed naysayer, and often more than one, will eventually come around and consider you less than just because THEY can.

We’ll stand up for you Meryl!

This is pretty much what goes on in The Prom, but with a lot more at stake than a list.  It’s loosely based on the true story of a lesbian high school student and her girlfriend who were told by the small-minded powers in their town that they were unwelcome at prom.

Is the exclusion of Streep from that dumb list the same thing as the hurtful homophobia we gay people all often endure at various points in childhood at the hands of those in power?

No, it’s a METAPHOR.  And yet, when you think about it, it’s not exactly dissimilar.  It’s just that when you’re an educated adult and your life is good, it hurts a lot less.

Which doesn’t mean it’s fair, or that it doesn’t hurt at all. 

She’ll get over it, I’m sure

Marginalization is ALWAYS meant to hurt on some level, especially when it’s made publicly and the target is that big.

Interestingly, Streep plays a two-time Tony winner in The Prom whose awful Broadway show has closed after horrible reviews and, in a fit of total self-absorption, travels to middle-America with some theatre folk to help our gay heroine simply to garner HERSELF great press and the chance at a third Tony award.

It’s a film musical based on a Broadway musical and it’s total cotton candy, the kind that you could easily be sick from after more than a few helpings.  But anchored by Streep (Note: Or do we keep calling her Meryl?) the whole thing manages to work, and often work really well.

I mean, how bad could this be?

Her performance is not a cartoon but an aptly etched musical type with a soul.  She’s ridiculous and over-the-top but with some vestiges of humanity that manage to peek through as she throws her endless colorful coats around in any number of songs or slams her Tony awards down on a hotel counter as the ultimate power play.

Who else but SHE could make us believe that?  Not many.  I venture to say, not even Keanu.

And yet in Let Them All Talk there she is again as a literate, whispery Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist in stylish oversized glasses, hair tastefully pinned back, who invites two female college chums she hasn’t seen in over 30 years to sail with her on a luxury boat to see her accept yet another literary award.

Add in Candy and Dianne and.. is this gay heaven?

This is a woman who saves it for the page vs. the stage and exhibits such control that she barely seems to exist to the outside world, other than on or through the pages she writes.

Still, she’s a huge presence, oppressive really, to almost everyone around her, especially those she claims to love.  That anyone tolerates her at all is a testament to just how much any of we humans are capable of enduring when we fear speaking up what we truly feel.

Or perhaps it’s just a testament to age.

And please.. we all know Meryl is ageless

For in Let Them All Talk, SHE, Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen play three woman in their seventies whose behavior and selves are anything but caricature.  We might not know them thoroughly or the exact details of the events in the past that drove them apart but we realize enough to get how real the pained humor between them is.  And how much worse what’s NOT being said would be.

It’s an enigmatic story and film whose power isn’t the blow by blow of what happened but more about our reactions in the present to the ways we continue to behave.

Bonus… it’s Meryl on a boat! #queenmary #queenmeryl

Streep/Meryl or whomever you imagine her to be renders an entirely different kind of famous artist than who she is in real life or what she evoked in The Prom.  It’s a hopelessly internal type who has a whole lot to say about ART and it’s lasting effect on us as people and if she wasn’t such a turn-off perhaps more than one or two people in her life would actually be listening.

But of course WE do listen because by the end of the journey we realize this gal was, indeed, human.  And that everything we didn’t want to believe that came out of her mouth made a whole lot of existential sense – actually too much sense.

I can only thing of one actor in the 21st century who does this so consistently every time they’re at bat regardless of what list anyone chooses to put them on.

And it’s not Keanu Reeves.

“It’s Not About Me” – Meryl Streep (from The Prom)