As a tribute to Stephen Sondheim, who passed away on November 26, 2021 at the age of 91, we’re reposting this essay with videos about one of the many great songs he left behind, and its new meaning now. —Publishers
Originally posted Feb 2, 2021
In January, a 35-year-old single Londoner named Gagan Bhatnagar spoke to The New York Times on the unique psychological challenge of enduring the coronavirus pandemic as a single person (“A pandemic is quite difficult. For some, being single has made it more difficult”).
“The first few months, I thought, ‘It’s okay, I can work on myself,'” Bhatnagar told the Time. “But then it just dragged on. One day I realized that it had been three months since I had touched a human being.
Reading Bhatnagar’s account, I can’t help but think of Broadway’s most famous bachelor, Bobby, the main character of Society, Sondheim’s 1970 musical about the pleasures and perils of marriage (Bobby the Bachelor was reimagined as Bobbie the Bachelor in a welcome spiritual revival of 2018).
In “Being Alive”, the closing number of Act II of Society, Police officer, New York bachelor who feels lonely on his 35th birthday, sings a bitter speech about marriage:
Someone to hold you too close
Someone to hurt you too deeply
Someone to sit in your chair,
To spoil your sleep …
Someone who needs you too much
Someone who knows you too well,
Someone to get you out of the woods
And make you go through hell …
But the tone and text of the song changes as Bobby gradually sheds his cynicism and embraces his vulnerability. “Someone to hold you too close” changes to “Someone is holding me too close” and his initial anger becomes an urgent call:
Someone is hugging me too close
Someone hurt me too deeply
Someone sits on my chair
And spoil my sleep and make me aware
To be alive, to be alive.
Someone needs me too much
Someone knows me too well
Somebody pull me up
And make me go through hell and support me
To be alive.
For Bobby, finding someone to love becomes, in the words of Sondheim researcher Sandor Goodhart, a matter of “existential survival.”
I never understood how high the stakes of this song were until now, as we approach the anniversary of the pandemic and his enforced social isolation.
The ending of Sondheim’s musical is (usually) ambiguous, and it’s unclear whether Bobby finds a partner or simply leaves his birthday party and resumes his life among a “city of strangers.”
But as the pandemic has become clearer, loneliness comes at a bitter cost. We humans are social animals and, as Martin Buber said, “life is meeting.”
With that in mind, let me share with you my ten best versions of “Being Alive,” in no particular order, all of which you can currently find on YouTube.
So many great performers, male and female, have put their individual stamps on this song, and each of these renditions reveals something different, from the search for Adam Driver to the doubt of Bernadette Peters to the wrath of Raúl Esperza.
The original Bobby, former Disney star Dean Jones, puts his whole being into this song. I love it when the rest of the original cast, including Elaine Stritch, there in the studio recording the cast’s album, burst out of spontaneous applause for Jones right after he nails that final note, a # G.
What a Journey Ovenden takes you on in this version, live from the BBC Proms 2010 concert – Sondheim at 80. I like the slow build up until the big arrival here. (Was that Howard Dean scream at the very end?)
This is the version, from Driver’s 2019 Marriage Story movie, that audiences (i.e. non-Broadway fanatics) are probably most familiar with. While Driver doesn’t quite sing here – it’s more of a recitative – his exploration of every word and syllable in this song brings audiences closer to Sondheim’s text than perhaps any other version.
Patti LuPone’s version is technically flawless. I just wish she would show a little more vulnerability here, get closer to the character. To me it sounds like Evita singing “Being Alive”. But wow, those pipes.
Neil patrick harris
Neil Patrick Harris is a very convincing Bobby. Notice the tears swelling slightly in his eyes during this performance.
I’ve heard Peters play “Being Alive” several times in concert, and it’s obvious his version brings down the house every time, whether it’s in an intimate setting or at Carnegie Hall. Notice how her voice breaks up a bit on the song’s penultimate word. It’s play, guys.
This live version of 2016 is like butter. As Streisand’s voice ages (she’s 78), she gives this song more truth, wisdom, and vulnerability.
Craig, the star of the gender exchange revival of 2018, is endearing here. I find myself rooting for her Bobbie to find happiness.
Karimloo, a former Phantom, is one of the best male singers on Broadway, and this version shows you why.
It is “Living Being” par excellence. Esperza’s pain is palpable here, and no other performer has taken greater risks with Sondheim’s song. If I had to pick one version of “Being Alive” to recommend, this would be it.
Bonus: Norm Lewis
Talk about dramatic range: Norm Lewis, the most formidable Javert, melts your heart in this version from “Being Alive”, a promo for Signature Theater’s Simply Sondheim revue (presented until March 26, 2021 in HD on Marquee TV).