Hey Old Friends

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

lyrics from Merrily We Roll Along, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Hey, old friend,
What do you say, old friend?
Make it okay, old friend,
Give an old friendship a break.
Why so grim?
We’re going on forever.
You, me, him,
Too many lives are at stake.

Friends this long
Has to mean something’s strong,
So if your old friend’s wrong,
Shouldn’t an old friend come through?
It’s us, old friend —
What’s to discuss, old friend?
Here’s to us,
Who’s like us — ?

Damn few.

I guess there can be such a thing as a surfeit of emotion. Certainly there are many of people who have commented to me the effects of being almost overwhelmed with feeling. It’s a curious quality in the human animal that our particular form of consciousness allows us to interpret the sensation of a myriad of physiological changes as a surge of feeling. We experience different feelings in different ways, and less pleasant feelings, of anxiety, or fear, of grief raise a greater spectre of being overpowered.

Yet even an abundance of good feeling, of love, of joy, even of deeper forms of satisfaction, a penetrating sense of comfort or well-being – perhaps as rare as deep, cathartic grief – can as well evoke a sense of enough, even a bit more may be too much.

Against the possibility of these experiences I wish to propose yet another condition of sensibility. Is it possible as I suppose it to be that one can have a desire for certain feelings, and to prolong the experiences or at least the conditions that are the occasion or at least the setting for having those feelings. In regard to setting a stage, let me further propose that a theatrical performance, if not that the quintessential American theatrical performance of a Broadway musical, seeks to concentrate in a short span of time serial instances of deeply felt sentiment, if not genuine feeling. Such concentrations are best realized in song, for the music alone creates a context that transcends the limitations of language per se in expressing strong feeling. Further, the songs harness the emotive power of the human voice, whose greatest strength seemingly derives from what has to be supposed to be the shortest synaptic travel for any sound arriving at the ear en route to the brain. All other instruments seek mainly to emulate the emotive power of the voice, if not through mimicry then at least through aural stimulation at the extremes of tonal scales or of volume.

The lyrics of the most affecting of songs are simple. Opera lyrics are simple. The simplicity maintains the primacy of the substance of the subjects of most songs, the great themes, the great abstractions. Love. Loss. Fear. Hope. Self-validation.

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