This summer, a young woman in our office will attend a wedding. That’s probably true of several young women, come to think of it. The one in question will break off a trip to Ireland to travel home to attend the wedding of her friend Braden. Braden is marrying Matt. Apparently all the best weddings have two grooms or two brides these days. This is completely cool, except that the whole “tossing the bouquet” thing is probably lost in translation. I don’t know, because I’m not cool enough even to get invited to a same-sex wedding.
At around the same time in my career, my friends were starting to get married too. All of the marriages were “mixed” (women marrying men), as we were considerably less cool back then. I had a very robust, tight gang of friends coming out of school and they very quickly found excellent partners. Weddings were called for and in a very short time, my gang could frequently be found in synagogues, churches, hotel ballrooms and other lovely venues. I imagine very large Visa bills arriving at parents’ houses during those years.
In my own case, there were no Visa bills (or parents paying for them), and there was no wedding. Although I seemed usually to have a girlfriend, I also seemed always to be single. It is difficult now to remember when I was or wasn’t dating someone – my longtime girl, before our breakup and then over the next few years, quite a few other people, on and off. My clearest memory of the time is my friend R, putting his hand on my shoulder in a bar one night and quoting Todd Rundgren: “We’ve gotta get you a woman.” For all the women I knew, I just didn’t really have one, the way he did. The girls I was dating were all fabulous, but each relationship had a common, fatal flaw: me.
So when I went to marriage ceremonies it was never in a starring role. Instead, I played one of two parts: (1) the guest who makes the bride’s father regret that he agreed to an open bar and (2) the wedding singer. Sometimes both on the same night.
At least three couples had me sing during their ceremonies. This was a bold move, proof perhaps that love is not only blind, but also partially deaf. In all cases, the bride had a much heavier hand on the musical tiller than did the groom: all the tunes were either specifically selected by the lady or carefully vetted by her. They chose lovely songs.
The first time out will always remain my favourite. It was the guy who put his hand on my shoulder, and his wonderful girl. This was our model couple, the two most grown up and “married” friends we had, whom everyone admired and loved. To be asked to sing at their wedding was then, and to this day remains, one of the proudest moments of my life. The wedding was to happen at an estate, one of those grand homes whose builder dies, leaving a line of heirs who aren’t smart or careful enough to keep up with the cost of taxes and upkeep. It was a fine spot, perfect really for a mid-sized crowd. Although scheduled for late May, which in Canada can still be a dicey time for weather, the couple chose to hold the actual ceremony out in the garden.
For the singer, the song is really all that matters. For this occasion, the happy couple ruminated a while and came up with two songs they wanted: one for the signing of the registry (to keep people occupied during the typically awkward time when brand-new-marrieds do paperwork) and the other song, terrifyingly for me, while the bride came up the aisle. There would be no da-dum-da-dum this day. There was to be our friend Greg, fingers working the electronic keyboard, and me, serenading the beautiful girl as she walked into her own wedding. “No pressure”, as they say.
The “registry signing” song was a novel choice, and luckily one well within my wheelhouse (meaning I could sing it without having to do much work): “You’re my Home” by Billy Joel. Billy Joel was a pretty romantic guy and damned talented: he could roll out a melody like a new area rug on hardwood. There were some truly goofy lyrics in the song (“you’re my castle, you’re my cabin and my instant pleasure dome” ) but the overall message of the piece was rather perfect for a couple who had found each other years before, dug a groove together and were now formalizing the deal:
When you touch my weary head
And you tell me everything will be all right
You say, “Use my body for your bed
And my love will keep you warm throughout the night”
Well I’ll never be a stranger and I’ll never be alone
Whenever we’re together, that’s my home
(As an aside, I often wonder if the people who write these songs realize that in the future they will leave their wives for Christie Brinkley. But that’s another story). I could sing “You’re My Home” in my sleep, in fact, it was almost too easy.
However, the other song – the “here comes the bride” replacement number - was by no means easy. My memory of all this is a little foggy but, one way or the other, the bride and groom settled upon a remarkable and somewhat unconventional choice from West Side Story. Yes, it would have been cool to do “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet” while the girl in the white dress stepped gently down the aisle, or “Boy, boy, crazy boy, keep cool boy!” but this couple wasn’t that unconventional. They went with romance, but with an edge: “Somewhere.”
West Side Story has more spine-tingling songs than just about any single show. “Tonight” is an exuberant, yearning thrill. “Maria” opens with “the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard…Maria” and flies off into operatic orbit. Just last night I asked my daughter to listen to “One Hand, One Heart” and she was enthralled (which is a trick, enthralling a teenager). That last one is of course tailor-made for weddings. Great stuff but “Somewhere” man, oh, man that’s serious business. It’s not just a song, it’s a hymn – an anthem – and is absolutely the kind of tune which most people will, with little effort, botch. It scared the hell out of me. But when a woman asks you to sing at her wedding, you don’t tell her that you’re afraid you might blow it.
The challenges of “Somewhere” are multi-layered. First, it was written as a duet between Tony and Maria. Soloists do it (Barbra Streisand, f’rinstance) but the thing has such a range that one normal human voice might sound okay in parts of it (way down soft and low to open) but get shredded later on. It is a tender song that starts out sounding like a flute, turns into trumpets and ends with cellos. Second, it was composed by Leonard Bernstein, at the heights of his considerable powers, a man who spent his life making things difficult for musicians. Third, it’s a Broadway number: it demands “big” in a way that might seem weird in a leafy garden setting. Westminster Abbey maybe, but a back yard? The song is beautiful, but it is not pretty.
And then there are the lyrics. As I say, the thing is an anthem: the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim could be carved into marble, like the quotations on the Lincoln Memorial. The song is not just about young love, but about aspiration, a new land, a new life – overcoming misery and hatred and despair, finding hope and daylight on a distant shore. Indeed, it is more about those things than it is about Tony and Maria being hot for each other. Most of all, it is about disparate peoples, different races and faiths, finding a way to live peacefully together after centuries of enmity. It is precisely the song you might sing at the end of peace talks. And of course, there’s one more thing about “Somewhere“: the song is ultimately a requiem. (remember what happens to Tony?)
I kept quiet about all this. As I say, the one person on earth you don’t take your problems to is a woman about to be married. She has enough to worry about. Besides, “Somewhere” is also a lovely song about young love, a couple starting out. The to-be-marrieds heard it that way and I expect, so did everyone else. They would have the song they wanted and, to be absolutely frank, I was thrilled to be singing it. It is, after all, a fantastic song. In all probability this would be the one time in my life when I would get to sing it (proven true, so far). So I accepted the assignment, bravely I may say, and went about the task of teaching myself how to sing this monster of a song.
So there was a certain irony when, not long after floating the idea of “Somewhere”, the to-be-marrieds (the bride anyhow) expressed a reservation. Oh? What’s the problem? The problem, it seemed, were the lyrics. Not all of the lyrics, but one word in particular:Somewhere. We’ll find a new way of living, We’ll find a way of forgiving Somewhere . . .
The couple had been living together a while so technically, “a new way of living” was not in the cards after their wedding day. But that wasn’t the problem. If the problem word had been “somewhere” I would have had to suggest a different tune. But of course, that wasn’t the problem either.
Now those who have been married a while will tell you that “forgiving” is sometimes the whole point of the arrangement. But not many people enter into it thinking like that. And they sure don’t want to hear about it during their wedding ceremony. On top of that, this couple didn’t seem to require a whole lot of mutual forgiving – they were good to each other and grateful for it, mainly. “Forgiving” had to go.
This saddled me with a new dilemma. I had already agreed (eagerly) to sing one of the most difficult songs I knew, confronting the prospect of an uphill climb the whole way. But now I had to make the climb while, um, “adjusting” the lyrics. Altering even one word of Bernstein and Sondheim felt to me like carving the word “guidelines” into the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. I knew Leonard Bernstein would have thought that, too. I was pretty deft at re-writing songs but this, this was sacrilege, like the politically correct versions of Christmas Carols they do at public school plays now (“I’m dreaming of a snowy holiday” and no, I’m not making that up).
And so in that moment I confronted the choice: change the key word of the most beautiful song in the most important musical maybe ever written, or disappoint the bride. It was one the easiest decisions of my life: I “found a way of beginning” instead of “forgiving.” See how easy it is to re-write a lyric, even one by Sondheim? Maybe some day I’ll take a shot at Sunday in the Park with George.
The wedding went as scheduled and as hoped: happily, beautifully, simply. It had rained the night before and so Greg and I, laying down electrical cable in the wet grass, risked our lives to do the gig (not really, but it sounds brave doesn’t it?) Folding chairs were assembled in neat rows in the garden, the gorgeous girl came down the centre aisle to meet her man, they were gently and deftly wed, signed the book and then we all alighted indoors for one of the best parties ever held. It was perfect. They even stayed married, unlike the other couples I later serenaded.
As for the musical performances, I can report that my accompanist was – as usual - flawless. I managed to stutter out “instant pleasure dome” without grinning too widely. I did not go “big” with “Somewhere” but rather tried for “gentle” – you might think that’s the easy way out but it wasn’t; it was like reining in a wild young horse that wants to gallop off into the distance. Anyway, whatever I did to “Somewhere“, no-one noticed the change of word and no-one mentioned whether I hit any clangers on the way up, or down, its steep slopes. If I did indeed, botch it, people were too kind to say.
Or maybe they just found a way of forgiving. Because as it turns out, that is what weddings are often about.
Something to keep in mind this summer.