Some powerful birthday juju in the air this weekend, carissimi...
Two titans, from two different worlds, but each cornerstones of what passes for a certain kind of modern sensibility, both celebrated anniversaries. Here to serenade them is the divine Miss Julie Wilson (still with us, 90 this year).
Mr. Stephen Sondheim turned 84 on Saturday; this seems quite preposterous, making him seem at once both far too young (he's been a presence on Broadway, after all, since 1957, and is surely today one of the last vital presences with ties to the motley world of show business that was already dying when West Side Story opened) and impossibly old for someone whose work is so ageless. He is one of the few writers for the theatre I know who is equally authoritative writing for characters of any age. Children may be relatively rare in his oeuvre, but the two very different young girls of Gypsy are as convincing as their titanic Momma, and I know of few songs that better explore old, old age than Follies' "One More Kiss." He is especially a geographer of middle age, though - in Company, of course, but also, in various ways in Sunday in the Park with George, perhaps most heartbreakingly in A Little Night Music, and here and there throughout his shows.
Today would have been the 108th (or possibly 109th... or even 110th, depending on whom you trust) birthday of Joan Crawford. She, too, was a chronicler, through her work, of age and aging - the daring young flapper, the resolute girl on the make, the tough lady, the indestructible matron - and if she did so with less subtlety and grace than Sondheim, that probably says more about the eras in which she lived and their attitudes to women and age than about her own abilities. She is still underrated as an actress - very effective when carefully directed, and entertaining even when not - and overshadowed by the scandal that erupted upon her death.
One of these two looked at the other, though, and knew what's what. Sondheim has said that in putting together in his head the part of Carlotta Campion, the singer in Follies of "I'm Still Here," Crawford was his model. Crawford never sang it, of course, but I think Wilson evokes a little of the clear-eyed, anger-tinged way in which she might have.
One of the great lost opportunities of the '70s is the never-made film of Follies that was for a while being shopped around. According to an entrancing piece last fall in The Paris Review, it could have been the ultimate MGM spectacular, a kind of alternate-world That's Entertainment!, equal parts evisceration and apotheosis. Crawford was meant to sing not this number, but "Broadway Baby," and given her affection for her long-gone days as a hoofer, I suppose it could have worked. Bette Davis would have been "Still Here," and I'm sure she could have been marvelous. Both ladies were survivors, as Carlotta is, but Joan had one up on Bette in verisimilitude - Davis never was the type to find a big financier, nor was she (as Crawford was, in spades) really the black sable type. Sondheim knew his stuff - still does now - and wrote in this one song a better biography than Crawford has ever gotten to date or is liable ever to do.
Lord knows at least she was there; and thank goodness, he's still here.