How to Act the Hell out of the Sondheim Masterpiece
“Being Alive” is one of the great songs of modern musical theatre. It appears in Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 show Company, and in the fifty years since it was written it has become a standard for baritones of a certain age. The song has been performed by just about every major musical theatre star– whether in a full-on revival of the show, in one of the many revues of Stephen Sondheim’s impressive career, in a cabaret night or on an album. John Barrowman has done it. Aaron Tveit has done it. Neil Patrick Harris has done it. Bernadette did it. Hell, even Barbara has a version (of course Barbara has a version).
I’ve seen many of these performances. And I whether done by Broadway prince or pauper, I have never, ever seen anyone do the song right.
Oh, don’t get me wrong: some of these performances can and will make you openly weep or clap your hands clean off. Some of these performances have been done by the most crystalline, powerful voices you’ll ever hear. But I stand by the fact that I have never seen anyone act “Being Alive” as the lyrics seem to intend, and a journey that makes the song not just impressive and moving, but heartbreaking. Raúl Esparza‘s roaring version comes the closest I’ve seen, but even he doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Where do they go wrong? Let’s dig in for some good old fashioned scene study.
The Context of “Being Alive”
Company is a show about relationships– and unlike some other shows set in the modern day, the sophistication with which it treats those relationships is one of the reasons the show continues to be mounted even today. It roughly tracks a year in the life of Bobby as he turns 35. Bobby is the perpetual eleventh wheel in a group of five New Yorker couple-friends, and the show revolves around a collection of vignettes of Bobby observing their ways of being together. None of those relationships are what you might call “healthy.” One couple snarks at each other until they nearly nearly erupt in physical violence. Another seemingly perfect couple is getting a divorce. Another couple simply seem unwilling or unable to understand one another. In another, the woman is so terrified of getting married she threatens suicide. And finally, one couple seems to have a relationship that is mostly transactional.
And Bobby himself has his own bad relationships. Bobby’s masculinity is definitely toxic, but in the diffident, “nothing can hurt me,” “I don’t really care” kind of way. He’s dating, but of the two women he’s currently seeing, one is way too cool for him, and the other is a flight attendant who Bobby seems to see as one-night stand material rather than anything more. A third, Kathy, is the one who got away– they once dated but are now friends, and she reveals that she simply wants something different than he does: to move to the suburbs and start a family. Bobby almost– but not quite– reveals that he wanted to marry her, and maybe still does. But he knows that ship has sailed.
And his relationship with his friends– while outwardly perfect– has its oddities too, tinged by his desperation. Bobby is propositioned by the male half of the “perfect couple.” Bobby’s response to his anxious bride friend Amy is to ask her to marry him– to which Amy responds that “you have to want to marry somebody [meaning someone specific], not just somebody [meaning any old person].”
Hang on to that word “somebody.”
In the penultimate scene of the show, Bobby is getting gently shitfaced with his acerbic friend Joanne at a club. Joanne is on her third husband, who she treats like crap (they’re the transactional couple) The only person Joanne hates more than all the socialites around her is herself. But it very quickly becomes clear in the scene that Joanne is into Bobby. Through all his flirty, half-drunk babbling, Joanne just stares hungrily. Eventually, she cuts through the BS and propositions him, saying “I’ll take care of you” (again, with the double meanings– Joanne is saying she’s going to fuck his brain onto the floor). Bobby’s response: “But who will I take care of?” Joanne was talking about sex. But with the same words, Bobby shows he wants something more.
This rocks Bobby to his core, as it cracks his illusions about himself as a happily swinging bachelor and perpetual third wheel. It also dredges up regrets about the choices he’s made. The scene snaps back to his birthday party, and an insistent chorus of his friends calling his name. But this time instead of reveling in the attention, Bobby shouts “STOP!”, and “Being Alive” begins.
Breaking Down “Being Alive”
“Being Alive” is a complicated song to act, but not actually that complex of a song musically– particularly for Sondheim. It has three verses and a bridge in a modified A-A-B-A format (with a few tweaks, in reality it’s more like AA-AA-B-A). Most performances that I’ve seen take it broadly as love song– or at least a song about love (which it… kind of… is). And most performers start quiet, and then ratchet up the intensity until by the end they are firing every vocal cannon at their disposal, ending with a dramatic high-A and a sustained high F that brings the house down.
But what’s the story?
The best musical theatre songs (in my opinion) are ones where the character changes in some way over the course of it– where something changes. You can contrast this with other types of songs, like an “I Am” song (like, for example another masterful baritone song, “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles) whose core purpose is for the character to tell the audience who they are, or express their inner feelings at that moment. Most actors I’ve seen perform the song treat “Being Alive” as a fairly basic “I Want” song– Bobby wants to be loved, he wants a relationship, he wants to be fully alive.
Maybe that’s where the song ends, but it’s not at all where it begins.
Part 1: The “I Do Not Want” Song
The first line of the song, really, is a spoken line that bridges it from the moment before when he screams at his friends. Bitter and spiteful, Bobby spits “What do you get?” This is the culmination of everything he’s seen in his friends’ relationships throughout the show– how most regret getting married, how several are cheating on their partners (or willing to with him), how they treat each other with disdain and sabotage each other covertly or out in the open. Bobby has concluded that no matter how much he might want one, relationships are toxic. And he has plenty of evidence to back it up. The answer to “What do you get” [from a relationship] is:
Someone to hold you too close
Someone to hurt you too deep
Someone to sit in your chair
And ruin your sleep
His friends reply: “That’s true, but there is more than that…” “Is that all you think there is to it?” “You’ve got so many reasons for not being with someone but Robert, you haven’t got one good reason for being alone.”
Through the whole show, his friends have been simultaneously trying to encourage him to get into a relationship (even setting him up with people), while simultaneously showing him why he shouldn’t. This is Bobby’s retort to them. It shouldn’t be sweet. It should be spiteful, it should be him showing them what he sees, that despite them treating him well, the way they treat their partners is awful. He continues:
Someone to need you too much
Someone to know you too well
Someone to pull you up short
To put you through hell
All of this should be played by the actor as if they are very bad things, because that’s where Bobby is in that moment. The show loves using the same words to mean opposite things, but don’t be fooled here– he’s not looking at these fondly. Yet.
His friends keep telling him he doesn’t understand relationships (like little devils and angels on his shoulders). He goes on:
Someone you have to let in Someone whose feelings you spare Someone who, like it or not Will want you to share A little a lot Someone to crowd you with love Someone to force you to care Someone to make you come through Who'll always be there As frightened as you Of being alive Being alive Being alive Being alive
This is the end of the first section; to recap, Bobby is listing all of the things he’s seen about toxic relationships in his friends, and is stating that he wants none of it. When dramatically approaching a song (or any scene, for that matter), as an actor it’s good to have a clear, active verb that represents what the character is doing in those lines, and what they are feeling. And especially with feelings, there should be no mixtures– as human beings, when we’re conflicted we don’t feel two things at once, we feel them in rapid succession, or back and forth. On stage, that makes an actor’s job immeasurably easier– you don’t have to play Love&Hate, you can play love, then hate, then back to love, then a dip into hate again. It’s much easier.
For this section, Bobby is rebuffing his friends. And feelings associated with that — scorn, anger, superiority. He is asking “Why do you want me to be as fucking miserable as you all are?” In doing this Bobby is being defensive, putting up a front. He’s not being as cocky as he is throughout the show, because the last scene touched a nerve. This anger is much rawer than in the rest of the show. It is quite literally an “I Do Not Want” song at this point.
Part II: Want Somebody
Then we snap back to the birthday party (though whether any of this is real or in his imagination is very much up to the director). He is told by Amy (the former anxious bride):
"Blow out the candles, Robert, and make a wish. Want something. Want something."
This is a callback to Amy’s previous line about wanting not just to marry somebody [anybody] but somebody [specific]. I’ve never seen it acted this way, but Amy is telling him he should both wish for something [as opposed to not wishing for anything, which he does at the beginning of the show] and also wish for something in particular.
Somebody hold me too close Somebody hurt me too deep Somebody sit in my chair And ruin my sleep And make me aware Of being alive Being alive
Though it’s a near-verbatim repetition of the first verse, the meaning is totally different. Whether out loud or just in his own head, Bobby is now confessing what he wants– even though he knows it will ultimately hurt him deeply. This is his birthday wish, but it’s admitting something that is directly opposite to what he said in the previous section. And he is using Amy’s previous words “Somebody”–in this moment in the sense of “I want anyone who will…”. Were I directing this, I would want this to be the quietest, most pared-down moments of the song, as if he were saying “Please…” before each line. The range of emotions I would suggest to deploy would be shame, longing, and sadness.
Somebody need me too much
Somebody know me too well
Somebody pull me up short
And put me through hell
And give me support
For being alive
Make me alive
Make me alive
Once again, this is turning the previous verse on its ear. For the audience, this is the show showing how relationships can be both good and bad for many of the same reasons. But as an actor, you can’t juggle that many balls at the same time– here, it’s all about confessing his deep desire with more intensity until we get to the bridge…
Part III: The Bridge, or, Bobby’s Decision
So, now Bobby is at the horns of a decision. Does he go back to being the person he was at the beginning of the song, rejecting the idea of pursuing a relationship, or does he go after what he wants deep down, knowing that it makes him vulnerable enough to very likely be hurt? And in a good “Things change” song, the bridge is where the decision is made. “Being Alive” is no different:
Make me confused
Mock me with praise
Let me be used
Vary my days
This is Bobby torn by a decision. It is the center of his “To be/Or not to be.” Musically, it’s a repetition of the same phrase over and over. The actor should play each line (or in the case of Mock me/with praise, each half-line) differently, as if they are different points in the argument.
This is the big moment, not just musically but dramatically; it is the revelation that changes everything for Bobby. He realizes that he wants is to be fully alive, and he realizes that he simply can’t do that without being with someone– no matter what that will cost him.
From an acting standpoint, Bobby should be surprised by this, shocked even; he is realizing something he never understood before, which will change how he lives his life.
Part IV: Can Anybody Find Me Somebody to Love?
We’re in the home stretch now, and Bobby is in full command of his powers, armed with this new revelation. He now pivots to begging, even if it’s full of joy. He is literally asking the audience for someone to love, and writing up a resume that freely admits how scary relationships can be:
Somebody crowd me with love
Somebody force me to care
Somebody let come through
I'll always be there
As frightened as you
To help us survive
Most actors nail this ending, which is why the song is such a classic and leaves audiences with chills and tears. But the issue is that they play this ending through the whole song, rather than doing the messy work that needs to be done to get there.
Go Forth and Sing
So, to recap, “Being Alive” is a wonderful song. But when it’s performed– whether in the context of the show or out of context in a revue or album, it doesn’t have the subtlety that the lyrics demand. I’ve heard this song sung extremely well by some of the best performers that Broadway has to offer. But with all these performances, I have yet to truly understand what Bobby is going through when singing it. Hopefully, thus armed, you can go and perform this song to the hilt, as it was intended to by one of Broadway’s greatest lyricists.