By the end of this year, I will have amassed a pretty impressive repertoire of movies, musicals and Jewish holidays the plot of which I can explain in French.
Or at least, it feels that way, because when I venture into the world of Francophone music and theatre (or when I run into somebody who doesn’t speak English in the kitchen), I tend to be the token Anglophone, and certainly the only person who could explain the meaning of, say, a Sondheim musical.
In my operetta class, most of the French singers (read: nearly everybody but me) are working on songs from American musical theater as well as operetta, and as such, they often come to me with questions about the texts. Raphaelle is singing “Broadway Baby,” and two weeks ago, she asked me the meaning of “dough,” as in “eating at a greasy spoon / to save on my dough.” And the other day, Clémentine said, “Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire, ‘the devil cuts loose’?” I…didn’t really know, but I gave it my best shot.
Yesterday, I came into class as Laurent, one of the few men in the program, was telling Christine, the director, that while he was ready to sing “Being Alive” from Company, he had no idea what the song was really about. So Christine said, why don’t you ask our friend here? Meaning me. So I started to explain:
Alors, cet homme, il s’appelle Bobby, et il est célibataire, mais il a beaucoup des amis mariés… So this man, his name is Bobby, and he’s single, but he has a lot of married friends…
(NB: “Célibataire” does not mean “celibate,” a mistake that Diane Lane rather memorably makes in Under the Tuscan Sun. An easy way to remember that is that when Carrie Bradshaw goes to Paris, the title of her book is translated as La Jeune Célibataire. Okay, moving on.)
Anyway, as soon as I started my spiel, Christine pulled out a ten-euro bill and said, “You two go get a coffee and talk about this; be back in half an hour.” If you insist.
So we ended up standing at a table at the little tabac/café down the block, talking Sondheim.
MOI: Alors, comme j’ai dit, cet homme Bobby, il est célibataire, mais tous ces amis sont mariés, et il ne sait pas s’il veut se marier.
(So, like I said, this guy Bobby, he’s single, but all of his friends are married, and he doesn’t know if he wants to get married.)
LAURENT: Il rencontre les filles célibataires?
(Does he meet single girls?)
MOI: Oui, bien sur, il y a Marta et Kathy et April…mais je pense que la seule qu’il voit vraiment dans le spectacle est April.
(Yes, of course, there’s Marta and Kathy and April…but I think the only one he really sees (romantically) during the show is April.)
LAURENT: Je n’ai pas besoin des prénoms, je pense.
(I don’t think I need the first names…)
(Oh for pete’s sake, why am I such a NERD?)
MOI: Donc, tu connais le spectacle, Company?
(So, you know the show?)
LAURENT: Non, pas vraiment.
MOI: Okay, Company, c’est vraiment une méditation sur le mariage. Il n’y a pas vraiment d’histoire traditionnelle, c’est une série de scènes et chansons autour du mariage et être marié. Bobby, il parle à tous ces amis à propos du mariage, à propos des raisons pour se marier, et tous les couples sont différentes–il y en a une qui se divorce, et après se sent beaucoup plus heureux!
(Okay, Company is really a meditation on marriage. There isn’t really a traditional story, it’s a series of scenes and songs on the subject of marriage and being married. Bobby talks to all of his friends about marriage, about why they got married, and all of the couples are different–there’s one who gets divorced, and afterwards is much happier!)
LAURENT: Ils se divorcent mais ils restent ensemble?
(They get divorced, but they stay together?)
MOI: Oui, c’est ça. C’est parce que le mariage, c’est vraiment un concept, c’est presque une chose matérielle dans cette relation.
(Yes, that’s it. It’s because marriage is really a concept, it’s almost a material thing in that relationship.)
LAURENT: Alors, dans “Being Alive,” qu’est-ce qu’il dit? Quelqu’un m’embrasse trop fort, quelqu’un me donne trop de douleur, quelqu’un prend ma place, et interrompt mon sommeil, et me fait conscience d’être vivant …
(So, in “Being Alive,” what is he saying? “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…”)
MOI: Oui. C’est juste à la fin du spectacle, et Bobby se demande, qu’est qu’on reçoit–“What do you get?”–quand on se marie? Il découvre à la fin que pour vivre, pour être vivant, “being alive,” on doit partager la vie avec quelqu’un.
(Yes. It’s right at the end of the show, and Bobby asks himself, what do you get when you get married? He realizes at the end that to live, to really be alive, you have to share your life with somebody.)
LAURENT: Mais je ne comprends pas, pourquoi est-ce qu’il dit ça, quelqu’un me met dans la confusion, moque-moi avec l’éloge, utilise-moi, mais aussi varie mes jours?
(But I don’t understand, why does he say this: “Make me confused, mock me with praise, let me be used, vary my days”?)
MOI: C’est parce que, à la fin, on doit accepter tout. On ne peut pas avoir seulement les façons positifs d’une personne; quand on se marie avec quelqu’un, on reçoit tout. Il y a l’amour, bien sur, et la compagnie, mais il y a aussi la confusion, les disputes, les moments où cette personne t’aime trop, te connait trop bien, s’assied dans ton chaise… C’est ça que Bobby essayait d’éviter en ne pas se marier, mais il sait à la fin que “alone is alone, not alive,” et pour partager la vie, il faut accepter le mal avec le bien.
(It’s because, in the end, you have to accept everything. You can’t only have the positive aspects of a person; when you marry somebody, you get everything. There’s love, of course, and companionship, but also confusion, fighting, moments where that person loves you too much, knows you too well, sits in your chair…it’s that that Bobby was trying to avoid by not getting married, but he knows at the end that “alone is alone, not alive,” and to share life, you have to accept the good along with the bad.)
Good, no? I’m not sure if that’s exactly what I said, or exactly what he said (in fact, it’s definitely not exactly what he said, since of all the people in my class, Laurent is the one I can understand the least, and especially not in a café with plenty of ambient noise). But I felt quite proud later, when Laurent got up to sing “Being Alive” and he explained to Christine what the song was about.
I have to say, I also have a newfound appreciation of people whose first language is not English who successfully negotiate musical theater. I didn’t understand at first why everybody was singing Sondheim, and then I realized that no French singer is going to understand what the hell “when the sky is a bright canary yellow, / I forget every cloud I’ve ever seen” means. (Actually, as Sondheim points out, nobody knows what that means. When has the sky ever been “bright canary yellow”?) It’s also really difficult to sing with normal English diction (as opposed to classical diction) if you’re not Anglophone, I think, so whereas it would be obvious to an American singer that the verb of the sentence needs to be emphasized even if it’s not the emphasized note of the phrase, to a French singer it’s not nearly so clear. (This was something I suggested to Laurent, not only to make the meaning clearer for the audience, but also to help him with memory issues. If you can latch onto the verb, you can remember what the sentence is. Somebody HOLD me too close, / somebody HURT me too deep…)
So hats off to Antonio Banderas, Liliane Montevecchi, most of the original cast of Pacific Overtures, Leslie Caron, Anna Maria Alberghetti, and Raul Julia, among others.
P.S. I just dripped coffee on my bedsheet. I was thinking yesterday that I could build a diet based on avoiding things that I tend to get all over my clothes and sheets and carpet: coffee, chocolate, oil, red sauce, honey. But then I realized that since despite being twenty-four years old, I still get toothpaste on my shirt half the time I brush my teeth, I should probably come up with a more practical weight-loss solution. Over and out.