I first encountered “Being Alive” on Broadway, during the 2006 revival of Company. Raul Esparza played Bobby, and his full-throated rendition of this song, which closes the musical, was one of its bright spots.
I enjoy Esparza’s growling treatment of “mock me with praise,” a standout line in a song Sondheim peppers with tropes. Bobby here could be speaking to the future lover he may finally let in, or to the Greek chorus of married friends who offer admiration and nettling in equal measure throughout the show. When Bobby blows out his birthday candles at the end of the show, it may be with a sigh of relief to have the chorus finally quiet down.
This show didn’t work for me (or many critics) entirely; the book and themes felt dated, and the actors-playing-instruments staging, done to such brilliant effect just a year earlier in the revival of Sweeny Todd, was clunky here. But Sondheim’s closing number is timeless, rousing, and well-served by someone who can belt.
This is the version on my iTunes. Lupone goes on a journey from vulnerable to triumphant, and the performance is enervating at every turn. “Vary my days,” she pleads, liltingly, before launching into her steady and powerful crescendo to the end.
Unlike most of Sondheim’s songs, “Being Alive” works better for me out of context, without the particulars of the show or character to color it. In James Lapine’s documentary Six by Sondheim, Sondheim describes his process of research for Company, a show about marriage – he talked with married people, as he himself was single at the time and content to be so. “Being Alive” does sound somewhat like an anthem to a theoretical idea, rather than a meditation on lived experience, which Sondheim does so exquisitely. “But alone/is alone,/ not alive.” It’s a surprisingly dichotomous statement from this composer, and one that doesn’t quite ring true for me.
Still, Lupone sells this line, and when I don’t know that it’s is coming from a man deciding in a sort of pop-psychology breakthrough that he wants in on marriage, then it takes me soaring along with it.
Neil Patrick Harris
This performance departs from most treatments of “Being A live,” and I like it a lot. Harris’ interpretation is wonderful and affecting. “Someone who, like it or not, / Will want you to share / A little, a lot.” Rather than give this line a hopeful, expectant tone, Harris imbues it with Bobby’s skepticism and pathos. Even in the transition when Bobby starts entreating, “Somebody, hold me too close,” it is with yearning, uncertainty, close-eyed vulnerability laid bare at last. And he treats the closing verse as a moment of reckoning – Harris’ Bobby at the end of “Being Alive” is at a place of departure, not the conventional triumphant arrival. It’s a lovely and wise piece of acting, and one that seems in tune with Sondheim’s sensibilities. Harris’ voice is nimble and expressive for the dramatic interpretation of this song, but at a certain point he can’t escape that it calls for someone who can belt, Broadway style, and the closing lines feel thin.
This footage of the recording of the original Broadway cast was shown on Six by Sondheim. I enjoy the bit of Sondheim in this clip, talking about the “flower bursting” at the bridge (“Make me confused…”), and the “rhythmic liberties” he wants his singer to take there. Then we see Dean Jones with his sideburns and red turtleneck sweater, singing richly and melodically, flowering at the bridge, and building to an exultant conclusion. There’s a lack of nuance to Jones’ interpretation, but his singing is unimpeachable.