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Behind the Lyrics of "Go Tonight": Grief and Nothingness

I resisted writing "Go Tonight". I was scared of melodrama. But isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Walk right up to the thing you’re afraid of and wrestle it to the ground? Finally, when we hit on this idea that Sam was going to land back at this moment where she felt alive and try to explain why she was stuck in a loop of this one memory with Kelly (or all of the memories with Kelly but especially this one), that made the show feel immediate to me. 
 
And because time has passed and I feel like I can say this without rancor, I would just like to go on the record saying that The Mad Ones is not about plot. It was never about plot. It’s a Russian doll of grief. You get deeper and deeper down into a young woman’s psyche until finally she’s able to catapult us all out of it into an unknown future. 
 
"Go Tonight" is the tightest, tiniest, most delicate of the Russian dolls which opens up to reveal - not another doll - but a nothingness that you never expect to face. 

 

The Mad Ones is not about plot. It's a Russian doll of grief.
The Mad Ones is not about plot. It's a Russian doll of grief.
 
When I was twenty years old, one of my high school friends got drunk and fell through the open window of a college dorm room and died. Everyone was drunk that night because it was one of those school-condoned “first-day-of-spring” rituals that colleges love. Community bonding, right? I took the call in my boyfriend’s dorm room. He had a single that year. It was small, impersonal. I rubbed my feet against the cold linoleum while I listened to another friend sob through the information. The phone can ring and your life can change. Except it doesn’t change all that much because you’re still alive. You’re still sitting on your boyfriend’s extra-long twin. You will still take a bus back to New York City. You will still go to class tomorrow. Because everything and nothing is different. 
 
I still imagine her there - waking up in the middle of the night from being passed-out drunk, mistaking a window for the bathroom and falling. Or something. I don’t know what happened. When things happen - it turns out, you never actually know what happened. Everyone is drunk. They don’t remember. 
 
We held a memorial a month later. Her parents had moved out of our small town so they had the service where they lived, which felt insensitive to us at the time, but now as an adult I really get that. I now know that it was a struggle to make that decision. At the time, I was numb and confused - not close enough to feel a right to go to the actual event but close enough to feel the earth rocking under my feet. 
 
The only friend of mine who still played violin (we’d all played violin together since we were kids) played the Ashokan Farewell and it was beautiful. I didn’t know how he could make it through without crying, but I understand that now too. He was playing. He wasn’t singing. Singing is a different kind vulnerability. Your throat catches and and you feel the danger of crying rise up and even as you try to tamp it down, you are exposed. Everyone knows. This same friend came to my grandmother’s memorial a month ago. We sang “Holding On” and he remarked how hard it was to sing. I thought about that moment when we were 20 years old but I didn’t say anything. It felt morbid to bring up a different memorial at a memorial.
 
When I think about my friend Hanne, I think about the strange moment we had when I was 13 and she was 12 and I had been sent to her house to convince her to continue violin lessons - a venture I too was questioning. She was in the backyard on some kind of balance beam. I told her how great it was to know how to play the violin. I parroted back all the things people had told me over the years. I didn’t know if I believed them but saying them made them feel more solid for me, for her, for reality. She kept playing. She played in high school. Then she died. She was studying astronomy. She wanted to be an astronomer. I didn’t know that until after she died. 
 
But what do you care of my friend’s life? It’s not yours. It doesn’t matter to you. These details don’t matter. Or do they? 
 
Maybe they’re what bind you to me? The reason you keep reading is that you hope somewhere in the crevices of my psyche, I’ve unlocked some secret of the universe - how to grieve. I guess I hope that too. I guess that’s why I wrote this song. 
 
SHE WAS -
SITTING ON THE ROOF OF HER BEAT-UP CAR
HALF-SINGING, HALF-LAUGHING, HALF-GOING TOO FAR.
THE MUSIC PLAYED OVER, WITH NOTHING TO COME.
IN A REMIX OF MEM'RY, THE LOOP OF THE - 
DRUM
OR BASS LINE...
OR WAS IT...
 
This first part is setting the scene - it’s about how stuck Sam is. It’s about what’s been happening yesterday and the day before and today. She’s been living this memory. This is the one that stuck and she doesn’t know why. You don’t remember your last moment with someone. You remember stranger ones and now, she’s a detective and she wants to know why - why this moment. There’s a slipperiness to memory. Think about that balance beam - I pinned it down so I could tell you that story but was it a balance beam or was it the edge of a picnic table? Did they have a raised bed? Why would they have had a balance beam? As soon as I try to lay it flat and smooth it out, it becomes unwieldy and wrinkled. Memory is slippery. Was the drum pulsing? Was it one note on the bass? Was it - 
 
SHE WAS -
SHE WAS -
EVERYTHING I'M NOT. MY WHOLE UNIVERSE.
AND I WAS A FOOTNOTE, A SLIM SECOND VERSE.
BUT SHE WAS THE CHORUS, THE HOOK AND THE GROOVE.
AND WITHOUT HER THERE PUSHING
SOMEHOW I CAN'T - MOVE.  
 
Sam admits her own irrelevance. Kelly was the chorus - the point- the reason you sing a song, the part you remember. Sam was just something next to her - something to set her up - and without that point, that chorus, that motor - she’s paralyzed. She’s pointless.  So what has she been doing? What is she literally doing right now? Sitting in a car. Still. Forever maybe. 
 
I don’t like talking about music in musicals generally. But when I found this metaphor - that Kelly is a chorus and Sam is a verse, it felt so true and so connected to them singing "Freedom" together. And yeah, even on meta-level, the structure of "Freedom" is Sam singing these verses while Kelly takes you through the hook of the song. It was so completely their dynamic and also felt so truly the idea a smart high school kid would reach for, that I got very excited. To be able to name something for yourself and have it feel true can be liberating. 
 

SO I SIT IN THE CAR THAT SHE LEFT BEHIND
SINKING DOWN IN THIS VOID LIKE A CRATER.
GETTING LOST IN A WORLD THAT I CAN'T REWIND.
IT'S TOO LATE AND IT'S JUST GETTING LATER.  
 
You’re stalling, Brown. You’ve been stalling. You have to figure out what you’re going to do. You’re wasting your best life. The words Kelly has said to her are a constant subtext in Sam’s brain. She’s also feeling the pressure of time. Nothing speeds you up like death but it also slows you the fuck down at the exact same moment. And that ambivalence - wanting to GO and wanting to do everything RIGHT is, once again, paralyzing. 
 
KELLY
IF WE'RE GONNA GO, WE GOTTA GO TONIGHT.
GO TONIGHT.
 
SAM
WHY DID I SAY NO?
 
KELLY
IF WE'RE GONNA GONNA GO, WE GOTTA GO TONIGHT.
 
SAM
WE HAD MILES TO GO.
 
KELLY
GO -
 
So those lines keep replaying in Sam’s mind - but as they replay they have more definition - not just “you’re stalling, Brown” but the immediacy that Kelly had of wanting to leave together. The impossible magical version of the night where Sam says “yes” and Kelly says “yes” and they go and maybe they fuck up their lives but they fuck them up together and they’re both alive. Now. Here. But they’re not. Poof. 
 
SAM (KELLY)
YOU WERE MAD TO REACH, 
MAD TO DRIVE. 
MAD, MAD (MAD, MAD) 
AND SO ALIVE.
THE SPACE YOU LEFT
THE EMPTY AIR
 I REACH, REACH (I REACH, REACH) 
BUT YOU'RE NOT THERE
AND TIME EXPANDS
 THE BEAT GOES ON
 YOU WERE MAD, MAD
 AND NOW YOU'RE-
 
Will she say it? No. She’s still not quite far enough into the void of the tiniest Russian doll to admit the reality she faces. 
 
Beat.
SAM
SHE WAS-
   SHE WAS-
 
She’s still in the loop. But something is rushing out of her that’s new - like it or not. She’s alive, she’s full of actual literal feeling. She’s paralyzed but she’s not numb anymore.
 
BOTH
OH.
 
KELLY
GO-OH
 
SAM
OVER AND OVER YOUR WORDS TO ME ECHO.
 
KELLY
GO TONIGHT.
 
SAM
GO TONIGHT.
 
KELLY
GO.
 
SAM
OVER AND OVER AS I TRY TO LET GO.  
 
All of the above is release. We wrestled a lot with whether or not the above section should be shorter. This is the area of the song that can become too vocally raw for my taste too - but this is the part where Sam is trying to move past just being sad so that she can extract herself. She must try to hear the words “go tonight” instead of just wallowing in them, which leads to a more scientific outlook - the beginning of an admission.
Have you noticed, Sam always falls back on analytics when the feelings are too big? I don’t relate to that at all…   
 
THERE'S A
BLACK HOLE, A VACUUM, IN DEEP OUTER SPACE,
THAT SWALLOWS ALL MATTER WITHOUT ANY TRACE,
WHERE LIFE IS SUSPENDED IN PHYSICS AND TIME,  
EVERY WORD YOU SAID HANGS LIKE AN UNFINISHED - RHYME.  
 
I’d normally never indulge in rhyming the word “rhyme" but, again, the idea of that hook and chorus opened me up to this meta-rhyme. I found it satisfying and young too.
Black holes are really interesting and mystifying. Basically, as you get closer and closer to a black hole, time becomes slower and slower until it basically stops because it’s moving so slowly and in this strange magical way, Sam has been living inside of this space where time has moved so slowly since the death of her friend that it’s almost like she’s still here - her words still hanging in the air next to Sam. She’s suspended rather than gone. 

 

Krystina Alabado and Jay Armstrong Johnson in The Mad Ones, Off-Bway 2017
Time has moved so slowly since the death of her friend
that it’s almost like she’s still here.
 
My grandmother died in September. She started dying in July and I started doing a daily yoga practice to cope. And the other day - not thinking about my grandmother - I counted up the months since I started doing yoga. And I realized only 4 months had passed. It feels like an eon since July. The dividing line of July, and then September, up to now - these months feel immeasurable. But it’s also a total blur. I feel like I was standing by the strange grave site in New Hampshire just minutes ago. 
 
Time is an accordion to the grieving. It’s almost like Sam is in the rubble of her own life, rubbing her fingers through its ashes, hoping to find something solid after a fire. 
 
SO I SIT IN THE VACUUM YOU LEFT BEHIND
AND I SIFT THROUGH EACH PHRASE FOR AN EMBER -  
FOR A SPARK THAT WILL LIGHT 'CAUSE I CAN'T REWIND.
 
She references back to the top of the song, before she was lost in the world that she couldn’t rewind that she is now trying desperately to work through - finally. She feels that panic, that fear that - again - she’s losing control… 
 
I UNRAVEL
 
until… 
 
UNTIL I REMEMBER
SITTING ON THE ROOF OF YOUR BEAT-UP CAR,
WHEN I WAS YOUR ORBIT AND YOU WERE MY STAR.
 
Earlier in the show, Sam has a monologue about black holes. It’s weird and sort of off topic. If you’re doing it right, it should feel like the actor is lost. I want the sensation I had when I sat in the audience of Thom Pain or What The Constitution Means to Me, where you wonder “is this what’s written in the script?” I want it to feel cavernous and lost in a way that musicals - especially - don’t
 
In that monologue, Sam explains the science behind black holes - a supernova doesn’t die - its loss in the universe creates a black hole. The moment is a partner to this one. This is the actual execution of the the idea she’s trying to get out there but she’s not ready to say. Once upon a time, Kelly was the supernova and Sam was in orbit around her. And it was glorious. She always knew where to be. But now, she’s not even lost in space. She’s being pulled slowly, almost imperceptibly towards a void that has nothing in center of it. And what does it mean to be pulled into a black hole, except that you too will become the void? 
 
BUT NOW YOU'RE A BLACK HOLE AND I AM LEFT NUMB
FROM THE LOOP OF THESE MEM'RIES, 
THE LOOP OF THE - 
THE LOOP OF THE - 
THE LOOP OF THE - 
 
And so she is - or she has been - numb. But she’s also starting to move through the final bits. I don’t know if this works for you but for me, saying something aloud can take away its power. It’s connected to that sensation of smoothing a memory out. It’s a thought experiment. It may not be exactly true, but the act of laying out, makes it possible to hold. And then, once I can name it, I can let it go. 
 
I remember this time that I had a crush on a guy and it became clear to me that it wasn’t going to work. I wasn’t going to get him. I had to work through the feelings aloud, and come to the other side of them, but then I decided to that I was done wanting that. Wanting it wouldn’t change the reality of my situation. Brian looked at me like I was some kind of crazy person. So I won’t pretend that everyone will find solace in this thought experiment. But for me, the power of SAYING it, admitting that Kelly is no longer a supernova but a black hole that’s in danger of consuming her - that changes things for Sam. It’s hard to call your friend a black hole. It’s even harder to resist that magnetic pull, but if you know you’re trying to resist, maybe you’ve got a shot. 
Now, only now, Sam can say what really happened. "There was a yellow SUV," -she’s facing it - like a soldier, like an adult. And then she’s admitting how little she knows. That’s what we do. That’s how we grieve. We surrender. We stop trying to hold it all.