The importance of Adam Driver singing ‘Being Alive’ in ‘Marriage Story’
[Warning: The following story contains spoilers for “Marriage Story,” currently playing in limited release and now streaming on Netflix.]
Toward the end of “Marriage Story,” Adam Driver’s character, Charlie, is seated with friends at a piano bar. He’s explaining what it was like to divorce his now ex-wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), and he gets visibly frustrated that he isn’t describing it accurately, that he can’t exactly illustrate the pettiness of the yearlong process and those who go through it.
Overwhelmed by his thoughts and feelings, Charlie — an acclaimed stage director in New York — does what any theater kid would do: He breaks into song. And of all the show tunes in musical theater history, he sings “Being Alive” — a choice that, as most Broadway fans will catch, actually makes the Netflix movie even more layered, profound and heartbreaking.
“Being Alive” is from the Stephen Sondheim comedy “Company,” which debuted in 1970. It earned a then-record 14 Tony Award nominations and won six, including best musical.
“It was the work that first won Sondheim his preeminent stature as a composer-lyricist on Broadway, his command of respect and admiration from all and cult adulation from some,” wrote Stephen Banfield in his book “Sondheim’s Broadway Musicals.”
Like “Marriage Story” — which Times film critic Justin Chang called “an emotionally lacerating experience, a nearly flawless elegy for a beautifully flawed couple” — “Company” was commended for its unconventional wrestling with unpleasant topics, especially as stage musicals were then expected to always leave audiences light and smiley.
“It’s this vein of skepticism — cynicism, even, sometimes — that gives ‘Company’ its particular tang,” wrote Times theater critic Dan Sullivan in 1971. "[It] filters its insights about the mating game and the dating game through a layer of humor, but it’s not really kidding — you’re skewered as you laugh.”
“Company” also was one of the first concept musicals — it forgoes the traditional structure of a linear plot in favor of vignettes that offer multiple perspectives on a shared subject (think “Cats,” “Cabaret” and “A Chorus Line”). It follows Robert, a perennial bachelor celebrating his 35th birthday, as he considers the bonds of his 10 taken friends. One pair is about to wed, another duo announces their split. Each scene features observations about coupledom and singlehood, the delights and disappointments of each relationship status.
“The marriages in the show are not bad marriages,” said producer-director Hal Prince in the biography “Sondheim & Co.” by Craig Zadan. “They’re just marriages that are holding together because people either live little lies or look the other way. It’s called human.”
The show also sees Robert spending time with three different girlfriends, who jointly denounce their shared self-involved love interest in the perky tune “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” (In “Marriage Story,” Nicole performs a bit of this song with her mother and sister at a party.)
“It dealt with the increasing difficulty of making one-to-one relationships in an increasingly dehumanized society … in which individuality and individual feeling become more and more difficult to maintain. It’s the lonely crowd syndrome,” Sondheim told Zadan. “We wanted a show where the audience would sit for two hours screaming their heads off with laughter and then go home and not be able to sleep.”
Via these nonlinear vignettes, Robert receives a thorough education on what marriage is really about. It’s having meals cooked at home over sudden excursions to Rome. It’s annoying neighbors together and destroying children together. It’s constantly feeling certain complex emotions like “sorry-grateful” and “regretful-happy.”
Before the musical opened on Broadway, Robert was set to reveal his final reflections in “Happily Ever After,” with lyrics that framed marriage as an imprisonment of unhappiness: “Why not fly — with no one to hold you too close, no one to hurt you too deep, no one to love you too hard, happily ever after?”
According to Zadan, Prince called it “the bitterest, most unhappy song ever written, and we didn’t know how devastating it would be until we saw it in front of an audience. … If I heard that song I wouldn’t get married for anything in the whole world.”
Sondheim then reworked “Happily Ever After” into “Being Alive,” in which Robert acknowledges what is gained in marriage. “Someone to hold you too close, someone to hurt you too deep, someone to sit in your chair, to ruin your sleep,” he sings somewhat sarcastically, with his friends making all kinds of comments between the verses.
But halfway through the penultimate number, Robert changes his perspective, from the vague second-person singular to the specific first-person, from a string of passive descriptions to a sequence of active requests: “Somebody, hold me too close; somebody, hurt me too deep; somebody, sit in my chair and ruin my sleep,” he continues, without interruption.
This small but significant shift, wrote Banfield, “transforms the whole picture, suddenly, from one of rejection to one of acceptance, implying that Robert now wishes for the loss of self-containment, that this will be his happiness rather than his misery.” Sondheim has said it progresses “from complaint to prayer,” to be open to romantic commitment and everything that comes with it — both the good and the bad.
“Being Alive,” which Neil Patrick Harris sang in a concert staging of “Company” in 2011, progresses “from complaint to prayer.”
While Robert sings “Being Alive” just before, presumably, beginning a committed relationship, Charlie sings the exact same song just after his has ended. And what was performed in “Company” as an optimistic vow to commit to another person is, in “Marriage Story,” a heavy revelation about what did or didn’t happen after that commitment was made.
Adam Driver’s rendition of “Being Alive” is sung at the end of a relationship.
In the movie, Charlie instantly recognizes the opening piano chords, and jaunts to the microphone to sing it ironically. “Someone to need you too much, someone to know you too well, someone to pull you up short and put you through hell,” he croons while also comically delivering the interspersed dialogue. “Want something, want something,” he mimics.
With the aforementioned lyrical pivot comes a newfound solemnity, as he considers every line he sings. He had someone who needed him too much, someone who knew him too well; she ordered his food, she cut his hair, she acted in all of his plays. She gave him support for being alive; she made him alive — she helped him get to Broadway and become worthy of the MacArthur “Genius Grant.”
“I went along with him and his life because it felt so damn good to feel myself alive,” Nicole had said of starring in his work. “I realized I didn’t really ever come alive for myself, I was just feeding his aliveness.” (This might also be why Nicole, who has felt “dead inside” for years, seems largely unaffected by Charlie’s most volatile insult: “Every morning, I wake up and I wish you were dead.”)
By the bridge, Charlie starts to become visibly introspective and emotional. Maybe he’s mourning the death of his marriage, and how it just wasn’t the lifelong constant he expected it to be. “Honestly, I never considered anything different,” he told Nicole at one point. “You were happy, you just decided you weren’t now.”
Or maybe, after silent fights in the conference room and shouting matches in the living room, he finally realizes how his lack of investment in his wife from the beginning contributed to the end of their marriage. Maybe it dawns on him that Nicole embodied these lyrics for years; she let him in and spared his feelings and wanted him to share. Why didn’t he?
Why did he make fun of her TV pilot — her first piece of work that was separate from him — and then suggest she funnel the money into his theater company? Why didn’t they spend more time in Los Angeles, as she suggested and maybe expected? Why was it a “deal” when it was something he wanted and a “discussion” when it was something she wanted?
“Alone is alone, not alive,” he wails on the song’s climactic phrase, perhaps enlightened by how contained he remained while married. By the end of the number, he’s holding back tears but also lets out a loaded sigh, possibly of relief and understanding.
In both stories, “Being Alive” remains an anthem for relinquishing an overriding selfishness, regardless of relationship status. Robert prioritized only himself while single, and Charlie — whether accidentally or on purpose — did the same while married. He became so accustomed to his wife cutting his hair, ordering his food and inspiring his work that he found himself utterly rudderless after she left.
“Being Alive” is also still a show tune of hope, the same way that attempting to begin a relationship and choosing to end one are both inherently optimistic endeavors. “When Charlie launches into his solo, you’re seeing something close to sublime: a man who has managed to embrace his pain and feel more alive, even hopeful, for it,” noted Chang in his review.
That aspiration is achieved in the final, epilogue-like scenes of “Marriage Story,” set some time after the divorce was finalized. Charlie is visiting Los Angeles for Halloween and tells Nicole that he’s taken some local theater work — something he swore he’d never do back when they were married. He congratulates her on her Emmy nomination, he acts cordially to Nicole’s new boyfriend, he makes whatever compromise is necessary to spend time with their son, Henry.
And after an exhausting evening of trick-or-treating, Nicole offers Charlie more time with Henry, and then chases after him to tie his shoe. It’s a gesture that’s emblematic of their new normal, and echoes the song’s last lines: Even though they are no longer married, she will still be the one who crowds him with love, who forces him to care, who makes him come through. “I’ll always be there, as frightened as you, to help us survive being alive.”
The end of a marriage marks the beginning of one of the strongest movies of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s career.
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