We Are Alive. We Got the Beat.

In Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's musical A Little Night Music, Madame Armfeldt tells Fredrika that the summer night smiles three times -- "The first smile smiles at the young, for they know nothing. The second at the fools who know too little. And the third at the old who know too much."

It's a wonderful way to start this beautiful musical about music in triple time and humans in love triangles.

But it occurs to me that it applies to Head Over Heels too. Maybe because it's more of a universal truth than we realize. Maybe because we are all, at one time or another, young, foolish, and old. And I guess in that way, it describes a single human life too. As Puck declares in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" And none of us is exempt from the charge, though we might like to deny it. Touchstone says in As You Like It, "The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool."

Like Night Music (and Midsummer Night's Dream), Head Over Heels presents us with a collection of couples. In Night Music, they are all wrongly coupled, so they all need to de-couple and re-couple. In Head Over Heels, most of the characters are with the correct partner, but there are lots of challenges and hurdles in their paths.

Arguably, Philoclea and Musidorus are the young who know nothing. They aren't shackled by tradition into believing they can only marry within their social class.

Pamela and Mopsa are the fools who know too little. They are older and should know better, but Pamela can't face her feelings, and so Mopsa is afraid to press the issue. Both of them have feelings that are blocked. They "know" more than the kids do about love, but they don't know enough to be happy, till the end.

But also... Dametas and Mira are fools too -- old enough to know better, but too blocked by tradition, convention, and hurt feelings.

And of course, King Basilius and Queen Gynecia are the "old" who know too much. They've lived so much life together, they have so much baggage, and their relationship has been reduced to little more than bickering. Their only hope is to return to the simplicity and joy of young love; they need to meet each other fresh, without the baggage of a 25-year marriage, without the inescapable hurts, wounds, and petty injustices of a long-term relationship.

But what's the point of the metaphor of the summer night smiling. Why does it smile? Is it amused? Indulgent? Maybe it has to do with the fact that these love affairs and obstacles are very serious to the people involved; they're only funny to us on the outside, perhaps largely because we recognize our own foolishness in these characters.

So in the worlds of Night Music and Head Over Heels, as different as those shows are, love is confusing and difficult in the first person, and hilarious in the third person. Kind of like someone slipping on a banana peel...

It leads us back to one of my central ongoing arguments, that no one goes to the movies or theatre for escape -- they go for connection. Audiences want stories that connect them to the rest of the human race, stories in which they can see themselves and their lives, stories in which they are reminded that they are not alone, that all of us go through difficult and ridiculous challenges every day, that all of us fuck things up sometimes, and hurt others sometimes. Being human is messy.

And really, maybe that's the underlying point of Night Music, Head Over Heels, and most other comedies as a matter of fact, that being human is inherently ridiculous, and coming to that self-awareness is a part of growing up and becoming an adult. We all know nothing at some point in our lives, we all know too little, and we all know too much. It's what keeps us humble. Or at least it should.

Or as I wrote in my fake Gilbert & Sullivan show, Bloody King Oedipus!, "Life's a funny proposition and we don't know anything." And that's why we tell stories.

Maybe the trick -- and the lesson these shows try to teach us -- is to embrace our human failings, missteps, and comic stumbles. Most love stories are comedies because love is crazy. It's what makes us human. After all, animals don't accidentally fuck up relationships with silly assumptions and insecurities; that's a human thing.

At the end of Head Over Heels, Gynecia notices that they've traveled in a circle, and Pythio says
Indeed, and to draw a circle: One must
End where one began. Yet who resembles
Any of the Fools who started on the journey here?

The cast then turns to the audience and leaves them with this
Go round and round --
Like light and light --
Descending day --
And breaking night.
Our roads shall shortly separate;
What may endure we now create;
Remember now this present sweet;
We are alive.
We got the beat.

There's so much there, that traveling in a circle is part of life, that everything in life is a circle, and no matter how bad today is, the sun still rises tomorrow. The characters (or is it the actors?) tell the audience that this communal experience is soon over, and we'll go our separate ways, but the telling of this story tonight has created something which will endure, in memory, in experience, in the self-awareness we take with us when we leave. The show is over, but it will stay with us. That's the magic of storytelling.

These lines finish with a celebration of Now (we might even call it "A Vision of Nowness"), "this present sweet," this communal, uniquely human experience of storytelling, but also a celebration of living in the moment, of being present in our lives, instead of living in past regrets or future fears. What matters most is that we are here today. We live. We love. And our life force -- our beat -- goes on, even after our time on Earth has passed. That life force is individual, but it's also communal, and we sit in a darkened theatre to celebrate that communion and to be nourished and changed by it.

We are all human, flawed and ridiculous, but we got the beat.

Long Live the Musical!

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