Sondheim, Amoebas and the Complexities of Love

How musical theatre and biology impacted my adolescent experience of romance

I loved the music of the ‘80s. While I kept up on all the latest MTV videos and danced to Soft Cell and the Clash with my classmates, secretly I holed up in my room and listened to tapes of musicals.

Classical musicals about midwestern folk or overblown Broadway extravaganzas like The Phantom of the Opera were alright, but I was mercilessly sucked into the complicated scores of Stephen Sondheim. While my ‘happily married’ parents watched the evening news and flossed in their room, I soaked in Sondheim’s compelling lyrics about the complexities of adult human relationships.

Sondheim’s characters were riddled with fascinating inner conflicts. Whereas many women my age were fantasizing about being a bride, I was listening to the hysterical panic attack of an imminent bride in Company, as she asks, “What’s a wedding? It’s a prehistoric ritual where everybody promises fidelity forever, which is maybe the most horrifying word I ever heard.”

I empathized with the ache of a long-married woman in A Little Night Music who, despite her better judgement, cannot help pining for her philandering husband, in a song called “Every Day a Little Death.” I puzzled when Robert, the bachelor protagonist in Company, asks his male married friend if he was ever sorry he got married. His friend replies. “You’re always sorry. You’re always grateful. You hold her, thinking, ‘I’m not alone.’ You’re still alone.”

These were the sentiments that consumed and haunted the space between my adolescent ears. Even with my limited experience of love, I sensed there was something wise and true about them. Within my own family I had begun to tap into a precarious balance between what I now know to be autonomy and interdependence. Would there always be a struggle between freedom and connection? Why did people choose to bond deeply when it seemed inevitably linked to bondage?

In biology class I studied amoebas and paramecia rubbing up against each other, merging and separating, again and again. There were two, then they were a blob, and then there were four. There was no sister, and then there was my sister. My grandfather was a part of my life, and then he wasn’t. My mother, the person I was closest to on the planet, and I were splitting apart — not a clean, amoeba-like break — but a splintery, jagged, hateful one.

The amoebas were simply following nature and instinct. In amoeba-world, merging did not appear to include STD talks, compromise, or remorse and gratitude. Separating didn’t include lawyers, custody and remembering whose books belonged to whom.

I started to experiment with boys, and quickly recognized for myself how ecstatic merging could be, and how equally painful separation was. Merging equalled love, bliss, wholeness, aliveness, possibility. Separation, whether it was forced or chosen, came to represent rejection, loneliness, ache, longing, death and despair.

When the strapping actor, with whom I had four, blissfully connected hour-long phone conversations before we met in person, was clearly not attracted to me when we finally did, it sent me spiraling down for months. When I returned from camp and easily spurned my summer boyfriend in favor of a new local one, I received long letters of hurt and betrayal.

I was beginning to understand. Every boy brought with him promises of new life and death. I was sorry and grateful. And deep down I wondered: Was I, and would I forever be, alone?