In tribute to Stephen Sondheim, who died November 26, 2021, at the age of 91, we republish this essay with videos about one of the many great songs he left us—and its new meaning now. —Editors
‘Being Alive’ is the pandemic anthem we all need right now
Originally published February 2, 2021
In January, a 35-year-old, single Londoner named Gagan Bhatnagar talked to The New York Times about the unique psychological challenge of enduring the coronavirus pandemic as a single person (“A Pandemic Is Hard Enough. For Some, Being Single Has Made It Harder”).
“The first few months I thought: ‘This is OK, I can work on myself,’” Bhatnagar told the Times. “But then it just dragged on. One day I realized it had been three months since I had touched a human being.”
Reading Bhatnagar’s account, I cannot help but think of Broadway’s most famous bachelor, Bobby, the main character in Company, Sondheim’s 1970 musical about the pleasures and perils of marriage (Bobby the bachelor was reimagined as Bobbie the bachelorette in a witty and welcome 2018 revival).
In “Being Alive,” the closing number from Act II of Company, Bobby, a single New Yorker who feels alone on his 35th birthday party, sings a bitter discourse on marriage:
Someone to hold you too close,
Someone to hurt you too deep,
Someone to sit in your chair,
To ruin your sleep…
Someone to need you too much,
Someone to know you too well,
Someone to pull you up short
And put you through hell…
But the tone and the text of the song shift as Bobby gradually sheds his cynicism and embraces his vulnerability. “Someone to hold you too close” moves to “Somebody hold me too close,” and his initial anger becomes an urgent plea:
Somebody hold me too close,
Somebody hurt me too deep,
Somebody sit in my chair
And ruin my sleep and make me aware
Of being alive, being alive.
Somebody need me too much,
Somebody know me too well,
Somebody pull me up short
And put me through hell and give me support
For being alive.
For Bobby, finding someone to love becomes, in the words of Sondheim scholar Sandor Goodhart, a matter of “existential survival.”
I never understood how high the stakes were in this song until now, as we creep up on the year anniversary of the pandemic and its forced social isolation.
The ending of Sondheim’s musical is (typically) ambiguous, and it’s not clear whether Bobby finds a partner or simply leaves his birthday party and resumes his life among a “city of strangers.”
But as the pandemic has made clearer, loneliness exacts a bitter cost. We humans are social animals, and, as Martin Buber famously said, “life is meeting.”
In that spirit, let me share with you my top ten versions of “Being Alive,” in no particular order, all of which you can currently find on YouTube.
So many great performers, men and women alike, have put their individual stamp on this song, and each of these renditions reveals something different, from Adam Driver’s searching to Bernadette Peters’s doubt to Raúl Esperza’s anger.
The original Bobby, former Disney star Dean Jones, puts his whole being into this song. I love when the rest of the original cast, including Elaine Stritch, there in the studio to record the cast album, bursts into spontaneous applause for Jones right after he nails that final note, a G#.
What a journey Ovenden takes you on in this version, live from the BBC Proms 2010 – Sondheim at 80 concert. I love the slow buildup to the big finish here. (Was that the Howard Dean scream at the very end?)
This is the version, from Driver’s 2019 film Marriage Story, with which the public (i.e. non-Broadway fanatics) is probably most familiar. While Driver isn’t quite singing here — this is more of a recitative — his exploration of every word and syllable in this song brings the audience closer to Sondheim’s text than perhaps any other version.
Patti LuPone’s version is technically flawless. I just wish she showed a little more vulnerability here, got in closer touch with the character. To me, this sounds like Evita singing “Being Alive.” But wow, those pipes.
Neil Patrick Harris
Neil Patrick Harris is a thoroughly convincing Bobby. Notice the tears faintly swelling in his eyes during this performance.
I have heard Peters perform “Being Alive” several times in concert, and it’s obvious why her version brings down the house every single time, whether it’s an intimate venue or Carnegie Hall. Notice how her voice breaks just a little on the penultimate word in the song. That’s acting, folks.
This live version from 2016 is like butter. As Streisand’s voice ages (she’s 78), she imparts this song with more truth, wisdom, and vulnerability.
Craig, the star of the 2018 gender-swapping revival, is endearing here. I find myself rooting for her Bobbie to find happiness.
Karimloo, a former Phantom, is one of the best male singers on Broadway, and this version shows you why.
This is “Being Alive” par excellence. Esperza’s pain is palpable here, and no other performer has taken bigger risks with Sondheim’s song. If I had to pick one version of “Being Alive” to recommend, this would be it.
Bonus: Norm Lewis
Talk about dramatic range: Norm Lewis, the most formidable Javert, melts your heart in this excerpted version of “Being Alive,” a promo for Signature Theatre’s Simply Sondheim revue (now playing through March 26, 2021, in HD on Marquee TV).