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The moment the sounds of “Being Alive” bled across the screen, from the mouth of a high schooler no less, I knew only ten minutes into the film that Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird was the greatest film I had ever seen. I say this earnestly with little hyperbole. It turns out that musical theater, and Stephen Sondheim in particular, would play a fairly substantial role in the film, almost like Gerwig’s secret weapon. From Lady Bird’s own thrilling rendition of “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle to her first paramour’s confident “Giants in the Sky,” sung in auditions for the school musical, to the impeccable use of Sondheim’s musical maudit Merrily We Roll Along, Gerwig’s use of Sondheim crystallizes her own vision of not only knowing how his music operates, but being able to make it a fundamental part of the vocabulary of her film and her approach to themes of ambivalence, angst, identity, femininity, and love. It made me and my friend Juan Barquin think: wouldn’t it be great if Lady Bird were a jukebox musical? Using only Sondheim tracks? The answer is yes. Juan and I teamed up to pick songs for every character in the film written by the famed composer/lyricist. Mr. Sondheim wasn’t wrong; it’s the little things you do together.

    • Lady Bird
      • Juan: “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle
        • Lady Bird’s actual audition song has been discussed in a few interviews with Gerwig, specifically in how the character (and actress Saoirse Ronan) drew inspiration for the performance from the Barbra Streisand version from Back to Broadway. The idea that Lady Bird would choose a song that repeats the thing she dreads–denial in doing what she wants to do–fits her beautifully. “Don’t, it isn’t right. Don’t, it isn’t nice.” It’s in her nature to be rebellious, to feel trapped in a town where she feels limited by everyone and everything. Even the end result of her audition, being sidelined to a smaller role, feels like another person telling her, “Don’t get out of line.” Even with everyone telling her not to expect much from life, she insists on miracles: falling in love, being free of Sacramento, living a life where she, hopefully, understands herself. Miracles. Nothing to ‘em.
      • Kyle: “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods
        • I’ve listened to this song a thousand times since I saw the film, and it may be  one of the best encapsulations of how Lady Bird broadly feels, but it is especially acute in understanding how Lady Bird feels about her home. It’s bittersweet, like Jack recalling when he’s climbed the beanstalk and feels torn between the new place that isn’t all it necessarily seemed and the home he “never thought to explore.” For Lady Bird, that sky is going to be New York, and it’s indicative that her feelings parallel the song when she makes a call to home. Like when Lady Bird pays attention to the details, as Sister Sarah Joan mentions regarding her college essay about Sacramento, however much she feels stifled by her hometown, she also loves it. “Giants in the Sky” is the purest distillation of that paradox of resenting, loving, regretting, and wanting your home.

    • Julie
      • Kyle: “Little Lamb” from Gypsy
        • As the best friend frequently sidelined by her own best friend, the song from Gypsy in which Louise struggles to situate herself in both of their lives seems to make sense. It’s not immediately a friendship of inequality, but it does gradually become that. And  while I don’t necessarily believe that Julie is as deeply sentimental, there is a nod to her depression late into the film, where she tells Lady Bird, “Some people just aren’t born happy.” It’s another very small, but very significant moment that makes their momentary dissolution as best friends feel much more potent.
      • Juan: “Old Friends” from Merrily We Roll Along
        • I would be a fool if I didn’t pick a single song here that came from the musical production that actually happens in Lady Bird and there isn’t anyone I can imagine singing “Old Friends” more than Julie. Kyle nails the notion of Julie often feeling sidelined and frustrated by her best friend, but I see the two of them (and even Danny if we were compelled to make them a trio) as a pair that will be strangely inseparable as the years go by. Julie has a certain optimism that would allow her to hope that, in the future, they’ll still be together somehow. “Most friends fade or they don’t make the grade. New ones are quickly made, and in a pinch, sure, they’ll do,” is a set of lines that perfectly captures how Julie made a new friend while Lady Bird was off being a fool. When they come together again, it’s like they were never apart, bringing us right back to, “But us, old friend, what’s to discuss, old friend? Here’s to us. Who’s like us? Damn few!”

 

    • Marion
      • Juan: “Stay With Me” from Into the Woods
        • Marion’s shadow looms large, over the film and over Lady Bird’s life. As one of the film’s taglines suggests, “When you’re ready to leave the nest, don’t forget who taught you how to fly.” In a film where supporting characters are given as much care and detail as the leads, Marion in  particular is one of the most complexly written characters in recent memory. Picking a song for her is hard, but Into the Woods offers her a bevy of numbers. The most notable of these is “Stay With Me,” where the Witch berates Rapunzel for her rebellion before almost begging her to stay with her. It mirrors the tumultuous relationship between Marion and Lady Bird, where one moment they could be yelling at each other, and the next holding each other while crying, or laying in bed together. As toxic as their relationship is, as much as Lady Bird wants independence (“I am no longer a child. I wish to see the world.”), Marion has an abundance of love for her and only wishes to shield her from her own ambitions (“The world is dark and wild. Stay a child while you can be a child. With me.”). However misguided her protection might be, and however aggressive her attempts to keep her near are, there’s love there. As the song extends into the musical, into the Witch’s “Lament” and “Children Will Listen,” so does Marion’s reflection on her relationship with her daughter. Parenting isn’t easy. Loving someone unconditionally is hard. But the bond between mother and daughter exists. And Marion needs her daughter, just as the Witch does, regardless of the child’s longing to leave.
      • Kyle: “I’m Still Here” from Follies
        • It’s hard picking one song for Marion, as it is for any lead that’s written with vivid emotions and a complexity in nature. But I landed on this one, because Gerwig is able to write the character with a past without any kind of intrusive exposition about that. One of the most striking moments in the film is during an argument between Lady Bird and Marion, where Lady Bird has come late at night after a school dance, still in her cowgirl getup. Her clothes are strewn on the floor, trinkets and physical totems of memory haphazardly placed. Lard Bird has violated the rules of the house in two manners: 1) she has come home very late, with little consideration of what else is going on at home and 2) she has left her room a mess, failing to put away her school uniform. Marion asks if other kids leave their clothes around like that, and Lady Bird fires back asking if other kids’ parents compare their children to other children, if she was ever allowed to go to bed just go to bed without having put away her clothes. Dispassionately, Marion says, “My mother was an abusive alcoholic.” She turns, leaves the room, and shuts the door. It’s a short exchange, capitulated by a small, but crucial part of Marion’s history. In one line, Marion’s life seems to have been texturized, like a story of implicit survival. Thus, her motivations behind much of the passive aggression have a logic. She is, like Sally, still here, working, toiling, rarely a moment  to herself to celebrate.

    • Larry
      • Kyle:  “The Little Things You Do Together” from Company
        • Company is  still one of the greatest plays about the complexities of marriage and the ways in which people situate themselves in other people’s lives. Part of that is compromise. “It’s not talk of God or the decade ahead that allows you to get through the worst; it’s I do, and you don’t, and nobody said that, and who brought the subject up first.” It’s a song of both deep passive aggression and of passion, that marriage is built on getting through everything, and not necessarily happily. Because, arguably, at the end of the day, partnership is about empathy. And Larry has little else but empathy for the people around him, and support, too: for Marion and Lady Bird, with their “great big personalities,” and for his son Miguel, who wins the job that both of them went in for. Larry maintains a balance of sarcasm and compassion, and that makes perfect relationships.
      • Juan: “Sorry-Grateful” from Company
        • Larry is a character with his fair share of frustrations at this point in his life. His marriage isn’t necessarily strained, but he struggles, just like everyone else in Lady Bird. The idea of him as Harry and Marion as Sarah makes sense: a relationship where the two can taunt each other about their vices in ways both light and mean. After all, he’s the kind of guy who sits at a computer playing solitaire as a fight goes on. He has regrets, but Marion is a light in his life, as exasperating as she (and the constant fighting with their daughter) can be. His stalled life, no job and not much to do, is counterbalanced by his joy that his children are flourishing. “Good things get better, bad get worse. Wait, I think I meant that in reverse.” But Marion and his children are a part of him. Is he sorry or is he grateful for the life he leads? Certainly he has regrets, but he is certainly happy as well. Life and marriage makes you both.

    • Miguel and Shelly
      • Juan: “A Little Priest” from Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
        • Where Kyle aptly explores the loving relationship with Miguel and Shelly through Into the Woods, I like imagining the two performing something as light as it is amusing. The notion of this couple, always clad in black with piercings, performing a song as giddy and morbid as “A Little Priest” is hilarious to me. Just as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett finish each other’s jokes and bounce off each other playfully while talking about how much of a mess the world is, Miguel and Shelly have that same ability to play off each other in the best of ways.
      • Kyle: “It Takes Two” from Into the Woods
        • Miguel and Shelly’s relationship isn’t really built on any sort of antipathy, and sometimes looks like one of the most functional relationships in the film. Although their relationship to the rest of the family is sometimes writ in frustration, particularly with regards to Lady Bird, together, they seem to understand one another. So, too, is the mostly loving relationship between the Baker and the Baker’s wife.

    • Jenna
      • Kyle: “I Feel Pretty”  from West Side Story
        • Jenna, not to be discredited, lives inside her own world, which is fine and not unusual for someone of her age from her background. And it gives her a sense of empowerment, her presentation of herself to her friends and, certainly, to Lady Bird. Maybe school is a little stupid, and so are boys, but she has herself at least. Herself and her power. She feels very pretty.
      • Juan: “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company
        • It could easily be argued that Jenna doesn’t have nearly enough self-awareness to be performing this number. But something about it stands out as the kind of song she would choose if she had any inkling to perform a Sondheim tune, regardless of context. Just because we see her on screen as a young woman who seemingly has it all and doesn’t quite care doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have her own issues. She can’t be all “Rich and Happy,” and there are moments that reveal some interiority into how her class makes people like Lady Bird react to her differently. Plus, I can see her holding a martini glass on stage like Anna Kendrick in Camp and spilling it on her peers without a care in the world. 

  • Sister Sarah Joan
    • “Loving You” from Passion
      • Kyle: This song could easily be sung by Marion, but here it feels appropriate with Sister Sarah because she does devote her life to her savior. Though in context of Passion, it’s a little grimmer and melancholy, if sung by Sister Sarah, it takes on a less dreary meaning.
      • Juan: “Loving you is not a choice, it’s who I am.” Where Fosca’s performance of this song is one full of pain, of longing, of drama, Kyle’s right in that it’s easy to imagine a recontextualization of it to be something full of life and genuine love. “It gives me purpose, gives me voice, to say to the world: this is why I live. You are why I live.” Dedication to Christ, to the church, may not seem like a reason to rejoice to some outside of it, but it’s something that has given her a distinct reason to live.

    • Danny
      • Juan: “Being Alive” from Company
        • Maybe it’s me projecting onto the queer high school theatre kid who isn’t totally sure of who he is, and is sort of a romantic, but Danny on stage as Bobby just makes sense. Reading Bobby as a queer character who surrounds himself by women and couples in order to feel comfortable isn’t a stretch, and Danny could easily see himself in a character who seems fine at first, but wants more. His breakdown at being confronted with his sexuality, at facing Lady Bird, reminds me of how Bobby has his own epiphany only after facing Joanne. Only when he accepts himself for who is he can he be truly alive. He needs someone to make him come through, who’ll always be there as frightened as him, to help him survive being alive.
      • Kyle: “All I Need is the Girl” from Gypsy
        • I don’t think “Giants in the Sky” is inaccurate or like an ill advised choice for Danny to sing at an audition, but Danny strikes me as a bit of a romantic. He wants to name a star “Claude.” He seems like someone who plans dates a couple of weeks in advance, and that his conception of heterosexuality is based quite heavily in conscious performance. Why not, then, have the greatest “romance is kind of a construct, but it’s fun anyways” song? It literally starts off with Tulsa saying, “I pretend I’m at home getting dressed for  a date.” “All I Need is the Girl” is much more about the idea of romance and being romantic than it is itself romantic. And that’s all Danny knows how to be.

 

  • Kyle
    • Kyle: “Epiphany” from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
      • I think Sweeney is considerably angrier than Kyle, but  they’re both sort of blindly following their emotions in this case. Kyle thinks capitalism is terrible and is therefore going to try to live on bartering, an attempt to disengage with an  oppressive system even when its logic is half thought. Sweeney’s revenge is also sort of half-baked.
    • Juan: “Agony” from Into the Woods
      • While I wholeheartedly agree with my co-writer in exploring Kyle as Sweeney, a small part of me wants to offer the character an ounce of self-awareness in performing “Agony” from Into the Woods. As much of a pessimist and rebel as Kyle imagines himself to be, he’s not far from what Cinderella’s prince thinks of himself. While he’d likely never say it aloud, it’s easy to think of him singing, “Am I not sensitive, clever, well-mannered, considerate, passionate, charming, as kind as I’m handsome?” But the line that might solidify it being a song his very own is “Agony! Far more painful than yours!” as it exemplifies exactly how I think men like Kyle think about the world. They “understand” it and, thus, suffer more in their attempts to change it. Which is dumb. You’re a teen boy. Get over it, Sweeney.

  • Father Leviatch
    • Juan: “Putting It Together” from Sunday in the Park with George
      • I love the idea of Father Leviatch as a frustrated artist. He’s a character dealing with mental illness even though he’s a man of faith, with some semblance of passion, but we initially see him as the individual putting together a production of Merrily We Roll Along at a Catholic school. The fact that any school would allow him to put on a relatively difficult-to-understand production is amusing, but the kind of work and time that went into doing that must have been draining. “Art isn’t easy. Every minor detail is a major decision, have to keep things in scale, have to hold to your vision.” And he did, though surely not without his stumbles along the way. And with every decision like this, surely there is a combative presence from the school, critiquing and picking it apart until it’s over with. One day you’re a hit and the next you’re replaced (in this case by an incompetent gym coach).
    • Kyle: “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along
      • Father Leviatch sits outside of the theater after his high school of production of Merrily We Roll Along has ended and he looks beyond crestfallen. He says, as if about to sob, “They didn’t understand it.” One might speculate that a reason that he would want to mount this Sondheim musical at a high school, which Gerwig has remarked as  being totally wild in reality, as a way of working through his own grief and frustration with life. There’s a push and pull in the song: “You’re still somehow part of my life, and you won’t go away, and there’s hell to pay, and until I die, I’ll spend day, after day, after day.” Jenna makes mention of a son that has died (she speculates it was a drug overdose), and that connection with life and death, holy and unholy, manifest in the song.