thu 06/08/2020

Sondheim at 90 Songs: 1 - 'I'm Still Here' | reviews, news & interviews

Sondheim at 90 Songs: 1 - 'I'm Still Here'

Sondheim at 90 Songs: 1 - 'I'm Still Here'

We're celebrating the great man's birthday with favourite numbers - mine's from 'Follies'

Not going gently into that good night: Tracie Bennett in the National Theatre's 'Follies'Johan Persson

Surely there’s never been a more apt time for Sondheim’s great cry of defiance? “I’m Still Here” is sung by showgirl-turned-actress Carlotta in Follies (1971) – added during the Boston try-out in place of “Can That Boy Foxtrot”. Loosely inspired by Joan Crawford, it’s the ultimate anthem of showbiz survival.

Carlotta looks back on a tumultuous career: “Plush velvet sometimes/Sometimes just pretzels and beer”. Musically, it’s a Harold Arlen pastiche, as Sondheim explains in Finishing the Hat, since Carlotta “would see her life as a flamboyant, torchy ballad”. Lyrically, it’s pure Dorothy Fields – “introspective ruefulness infused with self-deprecatory humour”, building to a triumphantly optimistic climax. “In other words,” states Sondheim, “a showstopper”.

Running alongside Carlotta’s experience is a potted US history, from the Depression through to the 1960s, with references to bread lines, Wallis Simpson, the Dionne quintuplets, J Edgar Hoover and the Red Scare. Again, it’s a mix of dark and light – the lifespan of a nation, recontextualised from this historic viewpoint. It’s a clever way to reflect Follies’ structure and themes.

In Dominic Cooke’s recent – arguably definitive – National Theatre production, Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta began entertaining guests with anecdotes, and then, as they drifted away, grew more serious, talking addiction, the transience of fame (“Hey, lady, aren’t you whoozis? […] Whatever happened to her?”), and the grim path of a woman in the industry – from “sloe-eyed vamp” to “mother” to “camp”. Bennett (above) then ended on a note of furious bravado.

I also adore Carol Burnett’s version (below). Funny, of course – her “I had a Follies number once” is wonderfully lugubrious – but also deeply felt. Sondheim has a knack for tapping into real experience, particularly that of women (of all ages), and you can just feel Burnett’s pleasure here at delivering something she knows to be true.

Unsurprisingly, “I’m Still Here” has had a busy life outside of Follies too. Patti LuPone sang it on the TV show Pose, as did young Chris Colfer as Kurt Hummel in Glee – although surely to the disapproval of Elaine Stritch, who proclaimed that a perform has only earned the right to it at the age of 80.

Sondheim wrote special lyrics for the movie Postcards from the Edge, in which Meryl Streep plays screenwriter Carrie Fisher’s alter ego, and Shirley MacLaine is her mother, Debbie Reynolds (below). This might be my favourite: the way that MacLaine directs “I got through all of last year,/And I’m here” at her struggling daughter as if to say "You, too, will come through this". That's reassurance we could all use right about now.

 

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