SONG SPOTLIGHT: Fine
Romantic duets are fun. So are comic duets. What could be better, then, than a comedic romantic duet? From “All Or Nuthin’” to “Take Me Or Leave Me,” musical theatre has thrived on this type of song. Adam Gwon’s duet “Fine” from Ordinary Days is a welcome addition to the canon.
Ordinary Days focuses on two pairings. Claire and Jason, who sing “Fine,” are a couple who have recently moved in together. Jason is the dedicated romantic type who is excited to take their relationship to the next level, while Claire is much more hesitant. Claire’s building discomfort with her and Jason’s increasing intimacy only makes Jason want to solidify that intimacy more.
When I first heard this song, it reminded me of Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do” from Annie Get Your Gun, with its witty back and forth arguments, the way each player cuts the other off at the end of the verses. (“No you can’t”—“Yes I can!” versus “Fine!”—“Fine!”), and with its litany of concrete detail and action. Where Gwon differs from Berlin, however, is in what those details and actions mean.
Uncle Stevie’s story about the time Jerome Robbins taught him about playable action in musical theatre lyrics is very illustrative on this point. Robbins, frustrated with the vague declarations in Sondheim’s “Maria,” repeatedly asked him what Tony was doing during the song. When Sondheim could only say, “He’s singing,” Robbins—in classic pants-shittingly scary fashion—told him “You stage it.” After that lesson, Sondheim realized that any song in a well-integrated musical is “supposed to be full of action. It’s supposed to carry you forward in the story, which means that every second should carry you forward in some way.”
While Berlin’s song does vividly illustrate the rivalry between Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, and gives performers a lot of fun actions to play, that action really has no bearing on the rest of the story. The song illustrates one plot point that the audience already understands–Annie and Frank are stubborn. It starts out at an impasse, and ends at an impasse. Immediately after the number, Annie decides to end the feud and submit to her love for Frank, but “Anything You Can Do” does nothing to foreshadow this decision.
“Fine” has just as many fun moments for the actors to perform as “Anything You Can Do” does, but with a more realized subtext for them to play. Claire and Jason recall the little arguments that have happened in the last hour on their way to a dinner engagement as we catch up to them in the present. Each concrete detail—shopping for wine, discussing the difference between cabernet and Riesling, riding in a cab in New York City traffic, giving directions, getting out and walking, getting rained on and getting soaked with no umbrella—supports and illustrates a couple having an argument. And the argument that the couple is really having, underneath each petty disagreement, is an argument about the seriousness of their relationship.
We know this not just because we’ve been watching Ordinary Days, but also because the lyrics in “Fine” reinforce that. Claire and Jason both state, “I’ve had that feeling more and more, like I don’t even know him/her,” but they have totally different reactions to this feeling. Claire appears to respond with self-sabotage, since many of her verses have her insult or belittle Jason, perhaps as a means to push him away. Jason responds by searching for a way to close the gap between them: “I want her to know how I can’t bear to spend a single day without her/But how can she know?”
This is made even more explicit in the original version of the song (now the “concert” version available for purchase on NMT), where Jason says, “I want to know every little thing about her” so that he can “know if I could bear to spend a single day without her,” like his gut tells him he can. By the song’s end, Jason has decided to take a leap of faith and pushes Claire to solidify their relationship. In just three and a half minutes, we’ve come a long way from “I’ll bring the red, you bring the white/That way I’ll still get drunk, you’ll still be right.”
The other thing I love about “Fine” is just how well the music and the lyrics complement each other and support the feeling of the song at each new emotional beat. For the measures dedicated to the arguments, Gwon’s staccato accompaniment perfectly illustrates the characteristic punchiness and quick sniping. He also distinguishes between worlds in this song through music. Claire and Jason sing staccato in the present real-time narration, while switching to a more legato style for their twin soliloquies (wrong show). Claire retains the staccato delivery once the rain sets in, while the piano accompaniment finally changes to a legato tempo when Jason has his inner revelation.
The last example is how the title word “fine” is used throughout the song. It mostly appears at the end of each verse, as the couple staves off each little argument with short, more spoken than sung, “Fine!”s. Later on, as the couple walk down Broadway and reflect on their growing chasm, they again stave off the worries by insisting “we’ll be fine,” but this time the “fine” is elongated, a triumphant melisma. This “fine” feels like a positive way to settle the argument, deciding that petty fights aren’t worth rending a relationship over.
“And then it starts to rain.”