Whether it’s “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music or “Color and Light” from Sunday in the Park with George or “Losing My Mind” from Follies, nailing lyricist-composer Stephen Sondheim’s songs is notoriously difficult. This isn’t just because his work is unfathomably ambitious, its chords seemingly in conflict with its melodies, its influence all-over-the-the-musical map; it’s because he writes about adults who are broken and broken down. Critic Richard Corliss once said that Sondheim makes “popular art for grownups with sutured hearts.”
There is one Sondheim song, however, that, if done right, can prove your mettle on any stage. It’s called “Getting Married Today” from the 1970 show Company—though it’s better known as (Not) Getting Married Today, since that is the refrain of the terrified young bride-to-be who sings it, Amy. It’s the ultimate audition test, and widely considered to be one of the hardest songs you could sing in musical theater. (Until “Guns and Ships” came along in Hamilton, it was probably the fastest song, as well.) The person who first nailed it on Broadway was Beth Howland, an actress who became better known as another nervous character, the clumsy waitress Vera, on the television show Alice. Howland died on December 31, 2015 in Santa Monica but her husband, actor Charles Kimbrough, didn’t announce it until last week.
In this song, she rattles off the litany of reasons she has no business getting married today, scarcely pausing to take a breath. For a kid on the precipice of adulthood, it taps into so many fears about the next step, about being tied down too early, about not knowing what comes tomorrow.
Legendary documentary filmmaker DA Pennebaker captured the marathon 14-hour long recording of Company’s official cast album in 1970. To be able to watch Howland work her way through the song’s intricacies for eternity is a gift. What’s remarkable is how she keeps her cool, despite some gentle pressure from Sondheim (“I don’t want to upset you, but I’d love to have it soon”). Note that she still acts the song as she sings it, even though she’s not in front of an audience.
You need to be fearless to get through a song at this speed, and Madeline Kahn aced it in a Sondheim celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1992. You also need to be fearless to move as little onstage as she does in this rendition; she sings with her eyes as much as her voice. Plus, the queen of comic timing shines most at 2:43 here, when she deadpans, “I’m not well” as a conversational interstitial to the patter and then picks it back up without a pause.
Glee did its own take when Will’s fiancée, Emma, freaked out on their big day. I’m delighted that the show turned a substantial audience onto musical theater who might not have been exposed to it otherwise. This version, though, shows the difference between the unpredictability and unmatchable excitement of a live performance of a song versus a filmed adaptation, where corners are inevitably cut (see also: Les Miserables from stage to screen). I’m no sound engineer, but the speed seems artificially enhanced, which is a copout. It no doubt still turned some Gleeks on to Sondheim, so good on them for that.
When I heard that Howland had died, I thought of how lucky I was to see her perform the song at a Company cast reunion show in Long Beach in 1993. Her performance left me as winded as she was (metaphorically speaking) and reminded me of the power of perseverance. Hold your breath and move through the fear; if you stay confident, the air will come again.