Lyrics can be open to multiple interpretations that change their meaning.
I’m not referring to how individual audience members can understand the same lines differently to suit their own conceptions; I’m talking about how the way the words are staged, from production to production, or even performance to performance, can excavate static material to reveal latent nuances. Sometimes, the nature of an actor’s delivery does the trick. Other times, how a production positions the text alters its resonance.
An example of each can be found on the Great White Way right now.
When A Strange Loop premiered at Playwrights Horizons, Larry Owens sang “His blackness doesn’t look blue in any moonlight / Which makes him harder to see” with a flippantly-derisive tone, garnering pockets of chuckles (one of the pleasures of watching the show is experiencing the wide range of responses it incites from person to person; somebody’s tragedy is someone else’s comedy, thematically pertinent to the musical’s radical, moment-to moment oscillations between the two genres, much like Usher’s simultaneously layered (looped?) existence).
True to A Strange Loop’s satirization of how black life is portrayed in art, Owens’ performance mocks the sentiment of this Moonlight reference; his character fails to recognize himself within the limited depictions popularized in such quotes (he relates instead to his “Inner White Girl” tunes, a testament to how surface appearance need not define fraternity).
Recast for the Broadway run, Jaquel Spivey’s take leans more into the tragedy. He approaches the line sincerely and quite literally, conveying the heartbreak of his inability to conform to such conventional definitions of black beauty, yet another instance of how overlooked he feels on all sides.
Revivals revel more explicitly in such reinterpretation. Case in point: Company’s rejiggering of Bobby/Bobbie’s gender (most directors would rest on their laurels here, content with this switching constituting the primary alteration…but not my gal Marianne Elliott, whose stagecraft adds additional theatricality to be unpacked). Womanizing Bobby (see what I did there?) into Bobbie reshapes Sondheim’s classic on a macro level, through close observation of its micro manifestations.
What better song to hone in on for our purposes than the 11 o’clock number with “Ladies” in the title? In the original “Ladies Who Lunch”, how the anthem speaks to Bobby’s plight is up for debate. Is it a roll call rattling off the various types of ladies he can settle down with? Is it a cross-gender paralleling of who he might turn out to be, depending on which path he chooses?
In the current revival, this latter explanation seems to most fit Bobbie’s bill (get it? Because they’re buying drinks? I’ll stop now). Musical theater royalty, our lord and savior Patti LuPone brings this subtextual reading to the fore; she aims the following verse squarely at Bobbie:
And here’s to the girls who just watch
Aren’t they the best?
When they get depressed, it’s a bottle of Scotch
Plus a little jest
Another chance to disapprove
Another brilliant zinger
Another reason not to move
Another vodka stinger
Sure sounds like a character bio for Bobbie (let’s not forget the undercurrents of alcoholism as a cop-out means of escaping reality throughout; remember where this scene takes place, and what they’re doing in it), and a depressing description at that, especially considering who Patti (reservedly) celebrates in the next and final verse:
So here’s to the girls on the go
Look into their eyes and you’ll see what they know
A toast to that invincible bunch
The dinosaurs surviving the crunch
Let’s hear it for the ladies who lunch
Note the juxtaposition between “another reason not to move” and “here’s to the girls on the go.” Now THAT’s fucking dramaturgy, of writing and REstaging.
On another note, how many years after his death until I stop crying at the slightest whiff of Sondheim’s work? You right: never.
Also, gargantuan statement alert: it’s ironic that Michael R. Jackson includes a joke about “the second coming of Sondheim” in A Strange Loop…because his debut puts him on that exact track.
I know, I know, too premature…but you heard it here first, folks.