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”

Untwisting The Olympics

Normally I have a lot to say about, well… everything.  Actually, not really.  There are some topics I’m smart enough not to voice an opinion on.

One of them is whether an elite athlete should get up on an international Olympic stage before billions of viewers and literally risk his or her life for our collective amusements.

Until I can do this, I don’t have a say

After four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles decided last week she was mentally and therefore physically unable to perform her routines at the Tokyo Olympics there have been numerous athletes who have been injured in the line of what too many of us in, their public, instinctively consider their duty.

But perhaps none of them so seriously as the 28-year-old men’s BMX racer Connor Fields.  He suffered a brain hemorrhage after a bad crash Friday night.  As of this writing he is out of intensive care and the bleeding in his brain has stopped. 

Best wishes sent to this already gold medal winning champion!

Right now Connor seems to be okay cognitively because he knows where is, remembers his birthday and can recognize people, according to his dad. But as a person who endured many, many, many months of miserable headaches and other life-altering symptoms after a mere concussion more than 20 years ago, I can tell you it’s way too soon to determine any long-term effects.

Oh, he’s also got a broken rib and a bruised lung.

Like Simone, Connor had already won a gold medal in his sport at the last Olympics.  Unlike Simone, he suffered no disorientation this time doing any of his moves prior to his event.

What happened to him was that during his race the front wheel of his bike clipped the bike in front of him, causing him to tumble forward on his head going around a turn.

This then caused him to be bashed repeatedly by the pack of speeding bikers directly behind him.

Now there is no reading anyone’s minds, especially athletes who are not satisfied with winning merely one or more gold medals in their sports and decide to come back four years later (Note: Okay, due to the covid pandemic, it’s five years this time) to challenge themselves all over again.

But I’d like to think had Connor found himself to be consistently off-balance and disoriented in practice prior to his race, in essence unable to judge the distance between himself and anything beside, beneath or in front of him, there’s a good chance he just might have chosen to sit Friday night’s fateful race out and at least saved himself the hemorrhage.

On the other hand, there is no way to know for sure. 

Nevertheless, one hopes so. 

Also.. who am I to judge?

It’s one thing to risk a brain bleed as part of your sport when you’re in pique shape. It’s an entirely different matter altogether when your judgment is so far off that even a simple beginners move in practice puts you severely off balance.

Not only are you risking your own life if you choose to compete, you are potentially endangering those around you, the reputation of your sport and the potential Olympic outcome of the rest of your hard-training (Note: FIVE years) teammates.

As Stephen Sondheim and George Furth wisely told us in one of my favorite Broadway musicals, Merrily We Roll Along, sometimes talent is knowing when to get off the stage.

Sometimes you gotta be your own hook

It actually takes a great champion like 24-year-old Simone to not only instinctually know this but to execute the correct move of BOWING OUT in front of the ENTIRE WORLD. 

Despite what the armchair, nay-saying couch potatoes are tweeting, that’s actually the move with the highest degree of difficulty.

Though her struggle with the serious gymnastic malady called the twisties is well known and historically documented, and has plagued many a gymnast through the decades, few if any athletes have publicly owned up to it until this Olympics. 

When they don’t go on it’s instead usually attributed to something the public can more easily understand – like a persistent virus, a strained muscle or a severely pulled something or other.

She still vaults above everyone

Though even a third degree lateral sprained ankle that made it impossible for her to walk normally (Note: And at minimum requires 8 to 12 months of recovery), plus two torn ligaments, didn’t prevent Team USA’s 17-year-old phenom gymnast, Kerri Strug, from continuing her routine in 1996.

In fact, she agreed to get back out there after she was pretty much ordered in front of the whole world to get back out there and perform a second vault by her renowned tough love coach, Bela Karolyi, in order to win the gold for her team. 

Which she did at the time. 

Never mind that coach Bela had to physically carry her onto the Olympic podium to accept her medal hours later because she was unable to walk at all.

Hard not to look at this and see the abuse

Still, the accolades and support for that sequence of events was overwhelming and deafening at the time. Strug wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on the cover of a box of Wheaties and internationally covered when she visited then Pres. Bill Clinton at the White House.

But if you now look at the footage of this 17-year-old girl being goaded to run and jump on a maimed limb after she sheepishly approaches her coach and asks, do we need this?,it today plays as nothing less than cringe worthy and toxic.   Or worse.

(Note: For the record, Bela’s exact reply to her was: Kerri, we need you to go one more time.  We need you one more time for the gold.  You can do it, you better do it.).

It also tells you everything you need to know about what these young athletes are subjected to by some of the very coaches and systems that are supposed to protect them.

Is anyone throwing a lifeboat?

Three decades later, it has taken a multiple gold medal Olympian to begin to turn the tide on all of this.  Interestingly, this Olympian is also a young woman of color who is one of a large group of sexual abuse survivors who suffered under the care of former Team USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nasser.  That guy now sits in prison under a 60-year sentence for sexual abuse crimes after decades of atrocities covered up and/or not taken seriously by the power structure of Olympic level sports.

Challenging that power structure is no small thing for any athlete, especially a 4’8” Black woman.   Yet it’s not only the gatekeepers of her sport in her way.

It’s the hubris of every single armchair critic that has tweeted, written, commentated and podcasted against a pro making a decision not to risk their life for the entertainment of those who salivate for the drama of a more modern version of Roman Coliseum style blood sports.

The Olympic viewing audience

One imagines these very same critics would likely send out real live lions onto the various arena stages in Tokyo if only we’d let them.  No doubt they’d see it as an Olympic sized insurrection to the soft, woke, left wing entertainments now being broadcast across the globe.

These same people can’t see Simone Biles’ actions at this Olympics for what they truly are – a sports changing, life changing, giant Olympic step forward from the dark ages of ignorance they’d prefer to keep us in this and so many other areas.

Guess I did have an opinion on this subject, after all.

Kehlani – “24/7”