I don’t have a particular reason for writing this post today, except that I’ve been meaning to write it for a while. In late 2010, I had the good fortune to see this embedded performance of William Finn’s Elegies, a song cycle he wrote about the people in his life who had passed away. Finn—who also wrote Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee—is my favorite musical theatre composer because his lyrics burst with unusual details that make the characters feel remarkably alive. Matched with his complex-yet-accessible melodies, his words make each song feel like missives from a peculiar, beautiful world.
Elegies is especially rich with songs like that. In “Infinite Joy,” for instance, the singer reflects on the philosophy of a departed loved one:
“Goodness is rewarded.
Hope is guaranteed.
Laughter builds strong bones.
Right will intercede.
Things you said, I often find I need.”
But more than that philosophy, the singer reflects on how easy that philosophy has become to adopt—how much and how potently it makes the drab daily world seem astonishing. And that’s where the specificity elevates the lyrics:
“I see the world through your eyes:
I taste lemon on my lips.
I marvel at the sailing ships
of well-dressed girls and boys.
You told me life
has infinite joys.”
Lemon on the lips. Such a distinct sensation. Marveling at beautiful children on a ship. Such a lovely thing to imagine marvelling at. And it tells you so much about this person who has died. It makes them stand just behind your chair.
And brilliantly, the song is also vague enough to let us fill in the rest. We don’t even know the gender of this person, but we know that he or she found bottomless happiness everywhere, even in the taste of lemon.
That’s something a lot of composers miss, I think. A song like this doesn’t work if you’re just reciting everything you and your lover bought at the market yesterday. Even in its specificity,the song has to give the listener’s mind something to do. It has to tantalize, not delineate, our imagination.
And that leads me to the one-two punch of “14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts” and “When the Earth Stopped Turning,” two songs that tell one continuous story. Watch this clip—from the performance I saw at Pace University in Manhattan—and see if you’re as moved by these songs as I always am. (Forgive the home video quality.)
Here are a few things I know:
(1) The simple premise of “14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts”—a dying woman and her son take a last, celebratory drive around the town where they lived, ending on the street where the woman raised her family—could make me cry without music or lyrics. The energy and gratitude and kindness behind this idea sums up how I always want to live (even if I don’t always succeed.)
(2) Speaking of specificity vs. imaginative possibility: We learn a lot about this woman, and more importantly, we learn how she feels about the details she shares. And late in the song, when she sings her own name, Barbara Finn, she strikes me as a woman who has etched her name on the world. She’s certain that her life has meant something, and you can hear it in the confident chords playing beneath her. But at the same time, she never actually says, “I’m dying.” She just tells us she has her oxygen in tow on her ride around town, and that she knows it will be her final trip. She focuses entirely on the beloved and the positive, and we are free to understand what else is there. How lovely of William Finn, to trust that we will get it.
(3) And how lovely, too, that not every detail on Barbara’s drive is an all-time hit. She and her son Michael pass the houses of people they hardly knew. But oh, listen to the rush of music beneath them anyway. There’s bliss even in these trivial places because time is running out. It’s like Emily looking at Grover’s Corners for the last time or Romeo’s eyes drinking their final image of Juliet: It’s life. It’s life. No matter which silly corner you’re looking at, you want more and more and more of it.
(4) The rushing vitality of this song is perfectly matched by the soft, devastated beauty of “When the Earth Stopped Turning,” and because we’ve met Barbara, we understand exactly what Michael has lost. And again, my god, the details. The overwhelming smell of powder in the air. The fact that they laughed until they cried, even tough they knew what was coming. This clarity of memory strikes me as exactly right. I was by my grandmother’s side when she died, and I feel like I remember everything. I remember what was on the hospital television. I remember what my mother said as her mother slipped away.
(5) I also love that the song slips around in time. Sometimes, Michael sings in the preset tense, sometimes in the past. Sometimes, he remembers her death. Sometimes her remembers her life. It’s all there, jumbled, yet Finn’s music keeps it structured and moving forward. He makes the confusion of grief comprehensible.
(6) And a few times, Michael stops himself from grieving. The music drops out for a moment, then returns with bold new chords, pounding and insistent, when Michael recalls:
“‘The world is good,’ you said.
‘Enjoy its highs,’ you said.
‘The summer flies,’ you said.
‘So make a parade.’”
And the music soars with the word “flies” and stretches out the word “parade” with contemplative wonder, and oh my god, I’m breaking down, because here it is again: That evocation of a philosophy. That use of dramaturgical structure to point out that life is worth living every, every minute. Am I a sucker for this narrative? Yes. But let’s all be. Let’s all be.
Ahem. So there they are. Two songs that always remind me to make a parade.