A truly cynical woman is a rarity on stage and screen. The optimism and openness of youth makes for an attractive female character, but leaves a grittiness and realism to be desired. While Stephen Sondheim is no stranger to writing interesting female characters, there are two standouts that together, create a unique female archetype: that of the grim comic. Company’s “Joanne,” and A Little Night Music’s “Charlotte” are two seasoned women, trapped in unsatisfying well-to-do lives, with disappointing husbands, and deep, well-guarded internal wounds. Their weapons are snark and alcohol, which they brandish against their own perceived tragedies. Through their vulnerabilities, Joanne and Charlotte serve as prime examples of this uncommon portrait of female authenticity and relatability.
Joanne is almost a specter in Company. Despite her inclusion in the couples swarming about Bobby, she maintains a cooler distance, separated from the action by a calculated, and evaluating gaze. A “caustic serial divorcée,”1 Joanne is on husband number three—a kind man named Larry, who sadly is not able to furnish her inner emptiness. She somehow seems beyond him, perhaps superior in both intellect and experience. You first hear this echo of Joanne’s marital wisdom in the song “The Little Things You Do Together.” She speaks to the fourth wall, revealing to the audience her “secrets” of a successful marriage. Joanne Lesley Gordon deftly describes her position in Art Isn’t Easy: The Achievement of Stephen Sondheim:
“Joanne, sitting far above the action, singing her scathing assessment of marital foibles in ‘The Little Things You Do Together,’ epitomizes the style and tone of Company. This role…is the closest the show comes to having a raisonneur. She serves both as commentator and narrator. Unlike Robert’s other friends, Joanne, a pragmatic realist, has no pretensions or illusions. Much married, she still advocates commitment. Although she is part of the company, her level-headed objectivity permits her to stand outside the action and comment on the folly of her friends—and from time to time of her own.”2
What begins as a cutesy commentary accompanying the karate antics of the couple Sarah and Harry, devolves into a depressing and sometimes shocking exposé, with “…Each verse [shifting] from a positive pronouncement to something terrible…Joanne’s solo lines and her lower-pitched voice reveal more about her edgy sarcastic character than the others’: she sings ‘withering,’ ‘getting a divorce together,’ and ‘I’ve done it three or four times.’”3 For Joanne, marriage is by no means sacred or idealized. She has already worn and discarded any rose-colored glasses, and is simply trying to cope as a realist. While her tone is of course comical and sarcastic, it is also incredibly dismissive of the fantasy that is the union of marriage. In this way, “Love and marriage, as the ends in an aesthetic which normally carry with them the discovery of meaning and truth from out of the chaos which is life, become themselves the chaos, or just small moments which interact with other small moments that when taken collectively compose a life.”4 One could almost interpret Joanne’s dispiriting account as evidence that her acerbic nature is solely due to her failed attempts at marital bliss, but the source of her misandry is revealed to be something far more personal.
“The Ladies Who Lunch” is one of Sondheim’s timeless anthems; timeless because it refers to a particularly feminine plight with a long history of listlessness and rage. It is not simply the disappointing relationships that are the cause of Joanne’s frustrations, but the fact that as a mid-twentieth century woman of her tax-bracket, she is imprisoned in the domestic sphere. She “sees that men, even lazy, mediocre, and not very smart men, have access to power and influence. Women, though, are doomed to few choices.”5 At a nightclub, while her husband dances in the distance cluelessly, and Bobby fades out of the spotlight, a drunk Joanne seethes to the audience. In a “rigidly tight structure, which controls and heightens the fury of the character, Joanne spits out her contempt for herself and her class.”6 She begins with a general toast to “the ladies who lunch”—those women “lounging” about, wallowing in selfish pursuits and feigning insecurity,7 (with repetitive soft consonants in the text inferring a tipsy tongue8). Then come the “the girls who stay smart,”9 bluffing their way through expertise in artistic fads they can’t wait to become passé.10 “(Joanne reveals her contempt by denying them adult status) know what is culturally fashionable, but are bored by the complexity of modern art. They pursue art appreciation to avoid the emptiness of their existence.”11 Next up, “the girls who play wife,”12 a “viciously accurate dismissal…With a terseness emphasized by the internal rhymes, [evoking] the sadness of a life lived at one remove, of culture and experience both frantically gleaned from the pages of a magazine.”13
Last in Joanne’s crosshairs are “the girls who just watch,” with their successive quips and alcoholic beverages 14, “The singer finally [including] herself among these grim, vulnerably tough women, as Sondheim laces in a dash of vitriol while repeating ‘another’ to peak emotionally.”15 This is Joanne’s position; where she lies paralyzed after a lifetime of disappointments and societal limitations. As Stacy Ellen Wolf points out in her essay “Keeping Company with Sondheim’s Women,” “Joanne, no doubt having tried and tired of all of those lives, opts to ‘just watch’…This brutal, half-sung, half-spoken bossa nova [enunciating] the fury of a rich but impotent woman.”16 Sondheim’s employment of the Latin rhythm in Joanne’s ode to purposelessness maintains continuity with her detachedness, (as well as reflecting her contemporary tastes17). and the repetitive strophic format of the verses evokes the futility of cycling about a seemingly meaningless life.
A Little Night Music’s “Charlotte” is in a similar position, transposed to a different time. She is a wealthy middle-aged countess, married to the militaristic Carl-Magnus, (who is tied up in an affair with the actress Desirée Armfeldt—and an implied myriad of other women). She is a fire-cracker in the cast of characters, unafraid to make bold quips and to assert herself as a strong force of personality. However, when she complies with her husbands instructions to inform the young and clueless Anne Egerman of her husband’s—Carl-Magnus’ sexual competitor—exploits with Desirée, her hardened defensive shell cracks a bit, and she reveals her hand to her younger companion.
The song “Every Day A Little Death,” chronicles the “sense of…losing ground, not the bliss of…[partnership],”18 as well as laments “foolish but incurable attachments to men who are arrogant, unfaithful, vain, and stupid.”19 Charlotte describes how a “little death” (not intended by Sondheim to be Shakespearean in nature20) is found in all of the innocuous every day household items that surround her miserable marriage: “in the parlor, in the bed, in the curtains, in the silver, in the buttons, in the bread.”21 This list functions perhaps as both all the ways in which she’s tried to be the ideal wife—to maintain her philandering husband’s affections—and all of the domestic elements that imprison her. She mentions the numb disbelief, (“and you hardly feel a thing”22), “[dramatizing] the subliminal pain latent in all the relationships. The quality of exquisite, ornamental suffering, which does not obviously intrude but gives a depth to the frivolous lives of the characters, is expressed by the dutiful and helpless wife.”23 In the B section, Charlotte explains how she is filled with rage, disgust, insanity, and mostly, humiliation at her position, yet will accept any affection thrown her way by “a husband who is her moral and intellectual inferior,”24 (“he assumes I’ll lose my reason, and I do”25), before she concedes with an “ah, well…”26 and returns to her complacency of a slow, and seeping emotional death. To accompany the tragic and revealing text, Sondheim utilizes a “light touch in melody, rhythm, and lyric pattern [which] reveals the delicate agony of the principles of humiliation that characterizes her life,”27 and his “mature idiom of weak harmonic functions and tonal ambiguity, giving Charlotte’s assessment the cool detachment of truth undisturbed by passion.”28 Although textually revealing, Charlotte’s song remains musically calm and collected, maintaining her aloof and lax external air. When the reprise rolls around—following the deceptively happy ending of Charlotte and Carl-Magnus leaving the country estate together after the latter’s win in a duel against Fredrik Egerman—it is not sung by Charlotte, but Mrs. Anderssen and Mrs. Segstrom, members of the show’s Greek chorus. They repeat the sentiments: “Men are stupid, men are vain, love’s disgusting, love’s insane, a humiliating business…” and ending on the resigning “Aaaah, well…” implying that Charlotte’s fate is to remain trapped in her prison of domestic fidelity, and that her “life will not likely change much.”29
Joanne and Charlotte are born of the same archetype; an archetype favored and honed by Sondheim. They are “tough, boozy, wisecracking…sardonic survivors,”30 and sharp, masochistic, confined “acerbic philosophers.”31 They reveal in their text and music that they are an identical brand of woman, with only differences in era accounting for perceived differences in personality. Both are of similar age, limited by their societal roles as women—Joanne still frustrated with the burden of womanhood seventy years after Charlotte has been keeping house. Both maintain a hardened facade throughout their respective shows, each only unraveling in earnest once, surrounding their personal musical numbers. These moments are different from sarcastic and/or drunken outbursts that still play in the tone of their cynicism. Their songs are similar in tone, both melodically and harmonically understated, simple in form, and sung introspectively, not directly to any other characters. Even when Anne chimes in during the return of “Every Day A Little Death’s” A section, Charlotte remains unperturbed, continuing her own monologue and “schizophrenic portrait,”32 independently. This portrait includes of course, that list of offensive domesticities, not unlike Joanne’s critical portrait of the variety of housewives. The two women feel adrift, without recourse, and meaningful options. Charlotte trapped by her marriage—her only real option—and Joanne by her cultural position, unfulfilled, and “‘too young for the old people and too old for the young ones.’”33 Both go through their lives detached and anesthetized: Charlotte articulating “the pervasive despondency and the anesthetizing acceptance of the pain of marriage,”34 and Joanne as “the living dead. Anesthetized from feeling anything at all by the effects of alcohol, somehow [surviving].”35
It is through the contrast of their wit and vulnerability that their humanity is revealed. The Sondheim archetype of the female grim comic brings a visceral realism to their shows, and perhaps the most relatable lens through which the audience can peer. Their guardedness, self- deprecation, obfuscation of pain, and even substance reliance provide a resonance in audience members who also feel trapped with an absence of obvious solutions, as well as legendary iconography in Sondheim’s canon. Their role is perhaps best summarized by Daisy Buchanan: they are “complex…warm but bitter…[and] have lived lives filled with hope and despair. [They] get the best lines – and sometimes they even have the last laugh.”36
Buchanan, Daisy. “Stephen Sondheim’s Most Fascinating Female Characters.” The Independent. September 24, 2018. Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts- entertainment/theatre-dance/features/company-stephen-sondheim-have-i-got-a-girl-for-you- female-characters-west-end-musical-a8542681.html.
Goodhart, Sandor. Reading Stephen Sondheim: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York, NY: Garland Pub., 2000.
Gordon, Joanne Lesley. Art Isn’t Easy: The Achievement of Stephen Sondheim. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.
Gordon, Robert, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Gottfried, Martin. Sondheim. New York, NY: Hn Abrams, 2000.
Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: A Life. New York: Vintage Books, 2011.
Sondheim, Stephen. A Little Night Music. Milwaukee, WI: Rilting Music, INC., 1973.
Sondheim, Stephen. A Little Night Music (1973 Original Broadway Cast) Patricia Elliot. BN Publishing. B002X0GDHY. 2009. CD.
Sondheim, Stephen. Company. New York, NY: Music of the Times Publishing Corp., 1970. Sondheim, Stephen. Company (Original Broadway Cast). Elaine Stritch. Sony BMG Music
Entertainment. B00138F396. 1992. CD.
Swayne, Steve. How Sondheim Found His Sound. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.
Winer, Laurie. “Why Sondheim’s Women Are Different.” The New York Times. November 26, 1989. Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/1989/11/26/theater/why- sondheim-s-women-are-different.html.
1 Buchanan, Daisy. “Stephen Sondheim’s Most Fascinating Female Characters.” The Independent. September 24, 2018. Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/ theatre-dance/features/company-stephen-sondheim-have-i-got-a-girl-for-you-female-characters-west-end- musical-a8542681.html.
2 Gordon, Joanne Lesley. Art Isn’t Easy: The Achievement of Stephen Sondheim. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. 50-51.
3 Stacy Ellen Wolf, “Keeping Company with Sondheim’s Women,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies, ed. Robert Gordon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 370.
4 Kay Young, “Every Day a Little Death: Sondheim’s Un-musicaling of Marriage,” from Reading Stephen Sondheim: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Sandor Goodhart. New York, NY: Garland Pub., 2000. 80.
5 Wolf, The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies, 376.
6 Gordon, Art Isn’t Easy, 68.
7 Sondheim, Stephen. Company. New York, NY: Music of the Times Publishing Corp., 1970. 164.
8 Gordon, Art Isn’t Easy, 68.
9 ibid, 166.
10 Gottfried, Martin. Sondheim. New York, NY: Hn Abrams, 2000. 86.
11 Gordon, Art Isn’t Easy, 68.
12 Sondheim, Company, 167.
13 Gordon, Art Isn’t Easy, 68-69.
14 Sondheim, Company, 169.
15 Gottfried, Sondheim, 86.
16 Wolf, The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies, 377.
17 Swayne, Steve. How Sondheim Found His Sound. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. 109.
18 Young, Reading Stephen Sondheim: A Collection of Critical Essays, 85.
19 Paul M. Puccio, “Enchantment on the Manicured Lawns: The Shakespearean ‘Green World’ in A Little Night Music,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies, ed. Robert Gordon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 140.
20 Gottfried, Sondheim, 109.
21 Sondheim, Stephen. A Little Night Music. Milwaukee, WI: Rilting Music, INC., 1973. 119-120. 22 ibid, 121.
23 Gordon, Art Isn’t Easy, 143.
24 Gottfried, Sondheim, 109.
25 Sondheim, A Little Night Music, 123-124.
26 ibid, 125.
27 Gordon, Art Isn’t Easy, 142.
28 Joseph Swain, “A Little Night Music: The Cynical Operetta,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies, ed. Robert Gordon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 313-314.
29 Puccio, The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies, 142.
30 Gottfried, Sondheim, 86.
31 Winer, Laurie. “Why Sondheim’s Women Are Different.” The New York Times. November 26, 1989. Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/1989/11/26/theater/why-sondheim-s-women- are-different.html.
32 Swain, The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies, 314.
33 Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: A Life. New York: Vintage Books, 2011. 197. 34 Gordon, Art Isn’t Easy, 142.
35 ibid, 69.
36 Buchanan, Daisy. “Stephen Sondheim’s Most Fascinating Female Characters.” The Independent. September 24, 2018. Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/ theatre-dance/features/company-stephen-sondheim-have-i-got-a-girl-for-you-female-characters-west-end- musical-a8542681.html.