I left my car, “Incitatus,” with a friendly cousin in Atlanta, where I took the train to New York to board the Queen Mary II. I had a roomette on the train, which had shrunk severely from those I knew a few decades ago. I don’t mind flying, at least in optimistically described “comfort” coach or preferably better, but the train allowed me to avoid airports. If one has the time and the money, a roomette or a bedroom is not a terrible way to travel. I find sleeping on a plane difficult, but though my bed on the train rocked a bit, I still got in some shut-eye. I may have saved money going by train rather than air, but as my whole point is to live, however briefly, en grand seigneur, I found the experience a bit limited in some ways, but lordly enough.
I stayed the night in New York, a city for which I am too poor and too old. Unlike London, the tempo seems to me to be that of an incipient heart attack. It would be perfect if one were a trustifarian in his twenties, with an inherited brownstone and the perfect profession. London used to suit me better – fewer skyscraper canyons and a more sedate pace. Also London has smaller theatres, important if one is sitting in the Gods, and more early music concerts than New York, so I think I shall still prefer London to New York. At the suggestion of the Williams Club director, I strolled up 43rd Street to Union Station, coming back by 42nd Street and Bryant Park, saluting the New York Public Library’s lions as I went by.
Whenever I go, say, to Wal-Mart, I wonder why God made so many people. I assume His love is sufficient reason for His many creatures, but He is rather more philoprogenitive than I would be. I can assure you, the Mormons must wrong about us becoming Gods on our own planets. Nobody would want me as a God! I am highly opposed to my own Crucifixion, for one thing, and I am not sure I like all that many people on the other. Like some other Christians not yet great saints, I prefer to love mankind from a distance.
New York reminds me of this even more than Wal-Mart does. It is crowded and bustling. I am not sure it is entirely habitable. When I walked up to Grand Central Terminal, I crossed Fifth Avenue, New York’s version of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré or Old Bond Street. I suppose that is “habitable” with enough money, but even so “I had not thought [life] had undone so many.” Anyway, I proceeded on to the Terminal that completely blocked 43rd Street. The place is grand, but as I was not expecting to meet Judy Garland, I went right back out and down 42nd Street to Bryant Park. It was very crowded, even in the evening. As I am not that fond of American Transcendentalists, I looked around the park and went on. Perhaps the sign that indicated a good deal about New York was on the grass in Bryant Park, “Lawn Closed.”
Coming back down the street, I came across the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Now I am a great fan of Sondheim’s, though curiously I have seen only one performance of his musicals in New York: Follies. In it an aged star did a couple of dance steps, so I can claim to have seen Marge Champion dance!
All the rest of my Sondheim I have seen in London. I loved all of it, except Passion, which had the unlikely plot of a homely woman stealing a handsome man from his beautiful fiancée. While I believe Yeats was right to say, “Hearts are not had as a gift, but hearts are earned / By those who are not entirely beautiful,” I am afraid I was not passionate about this musical – the only Sondheim I would not particularly care to see again.
Of course, I think musical comedies an unlikely place for profundity. There are a few exceptions – perhaps “Carefully Taught” from South Pacific, though perhaps to obvious an example. Even the splendid A Little Night Music is based on a frothy Ingmar Bergman movie, Smiles of a Summer Night. It was odd enough to find Bergman frothy, but the one thing that was not frothy in A Little Night Music was Dame Judi Dench’s version of “Send in the Clowns.” Unlike Judi Collins, who labored under the misapprehension that “Send In the Clowns” is a love song, Dame Judi knows it is something very different. It is about a woman realizing that the love of her life is a very great fool with a teenage bride who “unfortunately is still a virgin . . ..” Clowns are sent in to divert the spectators at a circus from something horrible happening, as it was clearly happening to Dame Judi’s Desirée Armfeldt in the show; her bitter rendition was correct – and far more effective than most.
My favorite Sondheim is probably Pacific Overtures. The score is lovely, and follows several of the conventions of Kabuki theater. It deals with the opening of Japan by the West, and the “black dragons” of the Western ships is a good place to stop. I had to meet my own “black dragon” the next day, only I think the Queen Mary II was rather larger than a dragon. It would seem to me more like Leviathan!