Our touching hearts slenderly comprehend

Something intriguing came up on a Facebook group:

I have a question about what probably is my favorite Sondheim song. I do not understand the last two words of this phrase:

“Careful the wish you make

Wishes are children

Careful the path they take

Wishes come true

Not free”

Commenters explained what Sondheim meant to convey, that wishes don’t come free. If you think about it long enough – and, especially, if you read it on the page – you glean the idea that “free” is an alternative to “true” and that both thoughts start with “wishes come” and blah-blah-blah. The actual meaning isn’t what’s intriguing. It’s the fact that someone didn’t understand something, for years and years, in her favorite song. What’s up with that?

To my way of thinking, if a lyric perplexes in the theatre, well, that’s one way of determining that it’s not a very good lyric. We go to the theatre to become emotionally involved with characters in a story. I love puzzles as much as the next guy, but I don’t attend shows to unravel the mystery of what’s being said. That activity takes me out of the story: I’m no longer reacting to what the characters are saying; I’m pondering what the lyricist is saying. And maybe that’s just me, because I’m a lyricist. But I don’t know.

Original Poster: Thanks, everyone! Your explanations make a lot of sense, and I’m surprised I never got it before! I’m such a big Sondheim fan and have seen most of his shows multiple times, and performed in several. This lyric always stumped me, though, til tonight. Now I can finally sleep better!

Someone Else: I have seen ITW dozens of times, performed in it twice and directed it once. Every time I am involved in it something new is revealed to me. I think that might be the measure of great art.

I’d agree that this might be the measure of great poetry. I’ll sit and stare at a John Ashbery poem. I read it as quickly or as slowly as I like. I get some of it the first time, not all of it – and I’m O.K. with that. I’ll pick it up and read it again, and something new is revealed; there’s much enjoyment in that. The way we enjoy a musical we haven’t seen before is very different from the process of reading a poem, though. We’re part of a group of people, who’ve paid a good deal of money for that night’s ticket, and, together, we all witness a story unfolding over a specific amount of time. If we want or need a little extra time to discern the meaning of something, we don’t get it: the music and stage business chugs forward at a pace set by the creative team. If a show becomes too dense, and too many words go by that most of the audience isn’t quite catching, an opportunity to communicate has been squandered

In songwriting, the chief pacesetter is the composer. Of course, both collaborators must agree to everything, but usually the words are hitting us in rhythms chosen as the music is written. So, in this Sondheim passage – which never struck me as particularly dense – part of what makes the meaning hard for some to get is the composer’s choice to put “true” on a long note. By the time we’re done hearing it, we forget the “Wishes come” part. Imagine the same lyric set on the music he used for the first phrase, “Careful the wish you make.” The faster setting of “Wishes come true not free” could have clarified what some fans of the song found murky.

Others chiming in: I think one of the most important things from a lyric is that it makes you think. Otherwise, we just sit there being spoon fed the composers meaning. No, I like a little mystery.

I love shows that take more than a millisecond for me to completely understand.

Perhaps Sondheim wants to give those willing to look deeper a nice little treat for their efforts.

Those efforts, I guess, must be on repeated listenings to the cast album. And I think we’ve all had this experience. Remember the time you first figured out what the initials to the nouns in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds spelled? Good times, for sure. But from everything I know about Sondheim, he’s not interested in dispensing treats to record players. He’s interested – as we all should be – in telling an effective story in the theatre. Any time he doesn’t understand something, from his theatre seat, he feels cheated. Like when he thought he heard townsfolk say of a pregnant character “Julie’s busting out all over!” I responded:

I go to musicals to be moved by the emotions characters go through. If I’m asking “What did he just say?” it’s distracting. The lyricists I most admire – Harnick, Hart, Loesser, Hammerstein, Maltby, Fields – never make me wonder.

And then, as you might have guessed, responders weighed in on how they love wondering stuff while watching musicals. And then it struck me: These are Sondheim cultists. If their God’s been obtuse, well, then, it’s good to be obtuse, because, after all, he’s God and God is infallible. Yet Sondheim’s said, on numerous occasions, that theatre lyrics exist in time and therefore are the opposite of poetry. They can’t afford to be obtuse; they must be immediately understood. This is something the Great One always strives for, but he doesn’t achieve it all the time. And when meaning’s a bit obscure, that’s not him throwing a careful listener a little treat; that’s him not living up to his own standards.

Clarity is capital. A confused audience is not a happy audience. I hope (as always) I’ve made myself clear.

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2 Responses to Our touching hearts slenderly comprehend

  1. Jake says:

    I read this original FB post. Then, and now, I don’t understand what’s so hard to understand about that lyric. It is clear as day. Particularly the long held phrase gives you even a moment to process that profound thought. I think this (for lack of better phrasing) is an intellectual problem. Sondheim certainly writes “smart” theatre and I don’t think it’s digestible to everyone. My two cents.

    • Joe says:

      Clarity is king, but different people absorb information differently. You can’t ever fully control what meaning a person is going to glean from your writing.

      Besides, I think it’s near impossible to comprehend everything the first time, whichever the show. There’s so much for the eye and the ear to take in. A general comprehension is more important and useful for an audience member, who ought to relax and absorb information in an engaged but not taxed manner (and each person has a different idea about what is engaging or difficult). You want to see the building before you see the bricks.

      And audience members understand this innately, I think, so if they feel they are in good hands, a strangely expressed sentiment is unlikely to jump out right away (unless they are lyricists…).

      Noel has a point about the importance of communicating everything in real time, but then again, the other point stands. You understand the sentiment (or, even more importantly, the dramatic function), but there is great pleasure to be had when you revisit the work and find something you missed last time.

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