The part of this song that everyone likes best is the “What can you do/What can you DOOOOOOO,” which is pure vocal catnip. We’re supposed to like it. It’s in there as enjoyable punctuation in a number which is not shy about throwing chest voice belting in with rapid enunciation. In the Raul Esparza interpretation up top, “do” is pronounced “dew,” and the held note comes out as “d’ewwww,” with all of the connotated snottiness that implies. On the other hand, Andrew Garfield pronounces it “doe,” and it’s a far more ingratiating sound, one that’s more like the instructions a choral director would give the group. It’s the fundamental difference in those interpretations—one is whiny, the other pretty—and it’s no surprise that the former is far better. “30/90” could be a rollicking showtunes joyride, like if Billy Joel listened to “Anthem” a couple times and decided what it needed was more piano licks. At its best, this a song about being a little drip, an immature person who is stuck in a stage of arrested development. Jonathan Larson knew the rules as well as Stephen Sondheim, who knew them as well as Oscar Hammerstein II. An “I want” song is an effective starting point, and “30/90” is strong in that wanting. The rest of TTB is more about Jon’s career crisis than it is about him personally, even if someone who likes that show more than I do would probably argue the opposite. “You’re thirty-five; who wants to celebrate being that old?” is replaced with a song about the profound despair of turning thirty. In 1970, when Company debuted, a man turning thirty-five might genuinely expect his life to be halfway over. Joanne’s comment about being not wanting to celebrate that halfway point, especially a life as unfinished as we find Bobby’s is, is meaningful even if she drops a sardonic joke after it. In 1990, when Jon starts worrying about turning thirty, he’s doing it not because he’s afraid of his life being over but because he’s afraid his life is unimpressive enough to strangers. This is a fault, reason enough to sing “ewwww” instead of “ohhhh.”
It’s in “30/90” where this sense of Jon as a person who fundamentally does not want to grow up is best evinced in TTB, and it’s why the Esparza interpretation is, as so many Esparza interpretations tend to be, basically perfect. Few performers have Esparza’s gorgeous melodicism in held notes, nor can they match his punching spoken words scattered through the song. In reverse order, Esparza does it with “Bang! You’re dead!” or “Voom! You’re passé!” followed with “What can you do, What can you DOOOOOOO?” It’s marvelous interpretation on top of some of Larson’s more constructive lyrics.
The lyrics of this thing, despite the best work of Esparza (and Jerry Dixon and Amy Spanger), are occasionally unsalvageable. Larson has a “can’t fight it, like [idiom]” line in here twice, which is exactly the wrong number. Either find a third idiom after “death and taxes” and “can’t fight City Hall” or cut one, because two only hits a mark between insufficient strength and unrevised repetition. Esparza tries to help out with the repetitive opening in a way that’s unconventionally effective, crooning his way through the vowels so that the identical structures of the first two verses feel less sticky. (The Garfield interpretation, which I really want to call the Lin-Manuel Miranda interpretation, emphasizes the uptick in feeling on the second verse. It hits “Freeze the frame” with harmony and added instrumentation not found in the Esparza, and what it reminds me of more than showtunes is Hillsong.) Esparza emphasizes the kiss-off lines in the verses, and it makes it easier to forget about some of the lazier lyrics earlier. “At least it happens only once in your life!” “At least you’re not alone – your friends are there too!” These are better lyrics. There’s a little humor in the first and a lot of humor in the second. The connection to Company, which TTB is not shy about and which it probably ought to be a little more shy about, works in that second one. “From all those good and crazy people, my friends/Those good and crazy people, my married friends” is not so far away from “your friends are there too,” relying on this sly denigration of the people the narrator spends his time with which is ultimately a self-deprecating remark. Not only do those people like you, you can’t do better than them; what does that say about Jon or Bobby?
The bridge has many of the same issues as the verses. It seems like Peter Pan or Dorothy Gale ought to function sufficiently on their own, and smashing them together is imperfect. The preference should be for the former, clearly. Never growing up is a neat corollary, and there’s already been some work done on the adulting aspect of that unwillingness to get older, e.g. “You still feel like you’re twenty-two.” But my favorite line in this entire song is the one in the verse after the bridge, and that one absolutely requires the references to The Wizard of Oz. “Seems like I’m in for a twister,” Jon says. “I don’t see a rainbow, do you?” It’s a line which is so good that it singlehandedly can cover up a number of the song’s looser lyrics. I love Esparza’s reading of that as well, emphasizing the sarcasm and hopelessness that figures into the whininess once again. “Do you?” and “What can you do?” are much the same sounds, much the same plaintive and loud meeps that make the song work.