(Link to the song is here)
Stephen Sondheim will turn 86 in a month and change and while I’m rooting for him to be like a relatively similar 20th Century genius, Oscar Niemeyer, and live past 100, I don’t know that it’s in the cards. His musicals, especially the five from his fabulously productive and innovative 1970s – Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd – must be the envy of every other person who’s ever put a musical on Broadway.
Sondheim’s best songs tend to belong to one of two categories: they either run at speed, running puns and patter together seamlessly (think “Not Getting Married,” “A Little Priest,” and “Your Fault” from Into the Woods), or they absolutely stop the action and are meant to be sung with the spotlight blazing on a soloist (like “Being Alive,” “Move On,” or “Send in the Clowns”). This seemingly sums up most songs that one could write for a musical, but Sondheim has a knack for doing it better than the average Lloyd Webber. His patter songs are faster; his lyrics are more clever, endlessly reliant on a wicked array of wordplay. His torch songs are more elegant for their lyrics as well, requiring some level of vocal virtuosity but, more than that, powerful interpretation of the words. “Being Alive,” to reuse that example, is an easy song to sing, but so difficult to get right because the lyrics are themselves deceptively simple; they deserve incredible care, and without that care they become empty vessels for senseless belting.
“Losing My Mind” is not the best of Sondheim’s spotlight songs, but it is arguably the most simple, pared down further than any of his other efforts, and its simplicity is part of what makes it so lovely, a Mondrian or Rothko in his oeuvre. Love is, in music or literature or whatever artistic medium, frequently described as some minor form of insanity. “Losing My Mind” is the TL;DR version of Passion, more than twenty years before Passion made it to Broadway; it’s a stunning picture of someone who has allowed her infatuation to color her every moment.
As renowned as Sondheim is, several of his individual plays are somehow underrated. Follies, very much an exercise in structure, is such a play. Follies is set in 1971, at a reunion of the Weisman Follies. Phyllis and Sally were both Weisman Girls; Ben and Buddy were best friends; Ben, who is preternaturally ambitious, fools around with both girls, eventually proposes to Phyllis (who promises to “walk my feet off in the Metropolitan Museum” for Ben), leaves Sally in the lurch, and Sally, who was sort of seeing Buddy anyway, falls into his lap. Thirty years later, the four of them reunite at the reunion. Ben is a retired diplomat who can’t understand why his life feels so empty, while Phyllis understands all too well what his problem is. Buddy is actively cheating on Sally, who is still fixated on Ben and, seemingly, losing her grip on reality.
The show’s not really about them. The second act certainly is, but the first act is itself a strange combination of a vaudeville and a modern musical as former Weisman Girls perform songs they used to sing. Past selves frolic on the stage and sing numbers. The foursome disappear from the stage for stretches at a time, reappear to snipe at one another, and disappear into the company again. The second act focuses more on the foursome, culminating with four solos each reflecting some kind of stage stereotype. “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me-Blues,” Buddy’s zany analysis of why his marriage is in tatters, kicks off with the announcement that “we’re into the follies.” “Losing My Mind,” Sally’s song, follows, and is followed with a dance-centric number for Phyllis’ regrets, “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” Ben gets to interact with the company a little bit but collapses in “Live, Laugh, Love.” “Losing My Mind” is the best of the bunch, a reasonable facsimile of the traditional torch song but with surprising potential to fill hearts with cement.
Being in love turns one’s thoughts to the beloved with virtually no stimulus, and “Losing My Mind” uses that concept to kick off. Of the first six lines, four of them end with “I think about you.”
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 friend: I think about you.
And do they know, it’s like I’m losing my mind?
The rest of the day is narrated in this way as well, as Sally does chores and the lights dim and as she goes to bed. The thought of Ben is never so far away, while nothing ever seems to change either. “Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor,” she says, “not going left, not going right.” All there is is the unchanging obsession over “you.” (“Ben” is specific, and “you” is not – one can hardly get misty over a specific name unless one is, like the Kevins who watched that episode of Community that George Takei “narrated,” extraordinarily lucky.)
The part that gets me – the part that gets everyone, I think – comes twice, especially at the end. “You said you loved me,” Sally says. “Or were you just being kind? Or am I losing my mind?” It’s an incredibly simple question, as simple as the song itself, and it’s the simple questions that bounce off our brains. Sally is not entirely lucid, but in this one moment it’s obvious that the inscrutability, the moodiness, the babyishness, is a defense mechanism. Without them, the questions reverberate: does he really love me? did he ever love me? have I made all of this up? The result is paralysis, unable to go left or right for fear. Maybe the answer to one of the questions will appear in one of those directions, or maybe it’s too difficult to recover from merely imagining it.
If you watch enough television, I think you become convinced that people who lose control of themselves because something went wrong in their lives just snap, that they become threatening or they break down all at once. I think if you watch real people, you can see them breaking down over time, being eroded piece by piece, losing sediment and sentiment, and that whatever kind of crazy it is affecting Sally is the kind of crazy that affects people who can’t hang on any longer. Sally, at the reunion, hit the end of her rope many years before. All there is to do is to build the habit, to go through the motions of coffee, friends, chores, bedtime and to pound her thoughts against the love she wanted but was refused, the love that went to her roommate and best friend instead of her, the trust that was broken bodily on all fronts. Ben becomes famous and successful; Phyllis becomes a model wife. Sally has two sons she fights with for no clear reason, a series of moves, and a husband who, to borrow from a different musical, doesn’t know how to love her.
Classically, Sally comes out in some notable dress and sings “Losing My Mind” with a bare stage surrounding her; less is more. “You said you loved me,” she accuses no one in particular. The best at doing this song are breathtakingly authentic here, maybe hurt, maybe confused, maybe resigned. “Were you just being kind? Or am I losing my mind?”