Saturday, December 30, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Losing My Mind" from Stephen Sondheim's Follies (from "My Favorite Musical Theater Songs")

“Losing My Mind”
by Douglas Messerli

Composer: Stephen Sondheim

Performer: Dorothy Collins (original Broadway recording), 1971

Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Barbara Cook (Follies in Concert version), 1985
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Dorothy Loudon, medley with another Sondheim song
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Liza Minnelli, 1989
Performer: Tim Curry, 1997
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Marin Mazzie (Sondheim’s 80 birthday celebration), 2010
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Glenn Close (for Barbara Cook’s Kennedy Awards Honor), 2011
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Bernadette Peters, 2014
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Jeremy Jordan
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Barbra Streisand, 2016
Composer: Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Michael Ball

I’ve been putting off the review of Stephen Sondheim’s important song from his great Follies for several months, knowing that it would be utterly painful for me to listen to so many great performances of one of the most remarkable theater songs that has ever been written, a song, in Follies, about a middle-aged woman who has long had a crush on another woman’s husband—despite being blessed with a loving husband of her own—who realizes by the end of the work, is no match to her Buddy, and about whom she also realizes she has wasted much of her life imagining an impossible relationship. With its obvious jazz intonations, its driving rhythms and natural modulations, and its psychological complexities, it surely has to be on of the best theater songs ever written, not as witty as most of Sondheim’s masterpieces, but so much from the heart. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to hear, as I just have,  in 10 versions of this emotional expression of inner turmoil without nearly breaking down in tears. And then, as I have expressed many times, I am true intellectual sentimentalist—a situation that probably makes it even worse, since I truly desperately try to resist what my heart refuses to, so that when the emotion takes over it controls everything, always resulting in a release of endless tears.

     The lyrics of this song are really an expression of the situation and, then, brilliantly, after the orchestra returns to remind us of the singer’s suffering, a complete repeat, sung in a slightly different pitch. Singers, in this sense, get two swipes at the marvelous lyrics and musical delights. What more could you ask for?
      Of course, this is Barbra Streisand’s forte, and she does it marvelously in her 2016 Broadway recording. Dorothy Collins is a strong and wonderful singer, who does a more than credible job in the original Broadway performance, and her's remains one of the best of the recordings. And other versions, such as the great theater performer, Dorothy Loudon, whose wavery voice is just perfect for the song, does a great rendition. 
     It’s also hard to fault Glenn Close, who was chosen to sing the song, before the gifted Barbara Cook, during the celebration of Cook’s 2011 award ceremony into the Kennedy Center Honors. And male singers, Jeremy Jordon, Michael Ball, and, particularly, British actor Tim Curry—yes, of The Rocky Horror Show fame—sang it quite movingly at an AIDS concert in 1997. Liza Minnelli did a rather stylish but quite embarrassing jazz dance version; obviously she was not up to the challenges of the song’s more operatic concerns.
     But when all is said and done, obviously, there is only one definitive performance, something that has to be heard before you can comprehend just how significant this work is: Barbara Cook’s wonderful interpretation at Lincoln Center in 1985. Sondheim must surely have wept, and even if he didn’t, he should have. The rest of us probably have every time we hear Cook singing these lyrics:

The sun comes up
I think about you
The coffee cup
I think about you
I want you so
It's like I'm losing my mind

The morning ends
I think about you
I talk to friends
I think about you
And do they know?
It's like I'm losing my mind

All afternoon, doing every little chore
The thought of you stays bright
Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor
Not going left
Not going right

I dim the lights
And think about you
Spend sleepless nights
To think about you
You said you loved me
Or were you just being kind
Or am I losing my mind?

Even Sondheim has made clear the psychological implications of the very last stanza, where the singer spends sleepless nights “to” think about him. It is a problem of her perception, and is, indeed, very much an issue of a kind of insanity, of which she seems to be cured by the end of her startling Follies family revival’s end, when the now self-hating Ben literally has a break-down on stage. He cannot even deal with his current life with Phyllis let alone imagine a true relationship with the love-struck Sally, and both her husband and Ben, life-long friends, show both the terror of all those years of “loving the girls upstairs.”

Los Angeles, December 30, 2017

Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (December 2017).  

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