“Who’s That Woman?”: Ambiguous Villainy in Sondheim
We all love a sadistic villain. We can’t get enough of those delicious creatures of the night, giving so many stories a shadow to cast over our heroes as they trek through hell and high water to claim their holy grail. Audiences eat it up. The smarter, the sicker, the more manipulative, the better. The entertainment business gets it, and they are feeding us with new stories, with new twists on classic deviants, now even casting the villains themselves as heroes. Just take a look at the new Maleficent film, starring a creepy as hell and drop dead gorgeous Angelina Jolie as said spurned sorceress, or Wicked, which is quickly becoming one of the most well known new stories, from Gregory Maguire’s twisted romantic epic, to the hit musical, to the whisperings of a film (which are pretty much being confirmed now).
We want to get inside these dark minds, and see what they’re seeing. We want to know how they became what they did. They are a mysterious menagerie of beasts, and they are getting more and more complex as new stories emerge. We are sickened by the idea that we could possibly to relate to characters such as these in any way, and it’s why we keep coming back. Writers are finding ways for that to happen, and we’re fascinated by it.
Some of the best villains in musical theatre are the creation of Stephen Sondheim and his many varied collaborators. They are so fascinating in part because they are difficult to spot. They are ambiguously villainous. In a Sondheim musical, you are not presented with “the good guy” and “the bad guy.” You get “this character with flaws” and “this character with flaws” and we see them fight it out. Even in his iconic Into the Woods, the natural inclination is to cast the witch as the villain, but by the end of the piece, she’s probably the only honest and well-meaning character of the bunch.
In Assassins (Sondheim and John Weidman) we are given only characters that have done terrible things in history – murderers, psychopaths, fundamentalist activists – and we are forced, then, to find the protagonist. We are forced as an audience to choose whom to follow, whose arc matters most in the end. In the case of Assassins, we begin to follow Mr. John Wilkes Booth. He is easily the strongest, smartest, and loudest of the characters (and with the longest ballad*, in a show built on them), so it is only natural for us as an audience to take to him. In a musical comedy full of terrible, horrific people, finding a hero, or anti-hero for that matter, is part of the experience. We eventually find that Booth and his assassin friends have spent the show working to convince a new, young, 20th century mind to commit the climactic show-stopping act of killing JFK, ultimately making Lee Harvey Oswald the character to have followed, as he has been our narrator, the balladeer, for what we’ve thus seen. (Note that this is only the case in recent productions, say, post-2004-Roundabout-Revival. Before then, such as in the original off-Broadway production, balladeer and Oswald were two separate characters, played by two separate actors.)
On the other hand, a show with seemingly few villains would be Sondheim and George Furth’s Company, which chronicles an existential birthday party, or several, in a 35-ish-year-old Bobby’s life. The show is full of characters, all of them rich in beauty, flaws, and honesty. Clearly, our protagonist is Bobby, as he doesn’t really leave the stage during the entire show, and we are essentially lead to wallow with him in his single-ness in a city full of married bliss, or so he thinks. But we are also told the story of his friendly relationship to five married couples, and three girlfriends, none of whom are particularly villainous. Bobby is never faced with a bad egg. No one is trying to take advantage of him, or lie to him, or cheat. In fact, everyone in the show holds him up on a pedestal. They respect him. They are all friends. The drama then, the villainy, comes from Bobby himself, or rather, his situation. He is single in a married world. His friends are marrying, fighting, making up, partying, drinking, and leading rich, full lives (at least from where Bobby stands), and he is left as a perpetual third wheel, wondering if marriage even matters at this point. He fears it, but he craves it, and that’s where the drama is born.
In Follies, arguably Sondheim’s largest show (with James Goldman), we are presented with yet another fascinating portrayal of villainy, this time, within each character individually. We are dropped in at a “Weissman’s Follies” reunion in a crumbling old theatre set for demolition. Among all of the old wounds, cheating and the forbidden romance, broken friendships and wonderful dreams completely left to die (yeah… it’s a pretty happy little show…) we get to see these broken characters go to war with their past selves. Everything about this show revolves around the mirror of your past. What did you do wrong to get you here? What road didn’t you take?
The villains are themselves. Their past selves for their future, and their future for their past. Their characters today are furious with their characters yesterday for making the choices they did, and the characters of yesterday are hating what they’ve become.
Outwardly evil characters fascinate audiences. We love the ghastliest creatures permeating our stories, but we are disturbed when we start to relate to them, and we love that. I think that is what Sondheim and his collaborators have been able to do. They’ve taken the monster out of the monsters, and put it into reflections of our selves onstage. The villainy doesn’t necessarily rest in “a villain,” but in the darkness and in the flaws (the follies) of human nature. Musical theatre is unique in that it allows us to do that. It offers an existential glimpse into the minds of damaged, broken, real, and determined people. It’s part of what makes this art form so damn cathartic and beautiful.
*a “story song.”
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