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you ain't a beauty, but, hey, you're alright
perspective shifts & the musical theatricality of bruce springsteen’s "thunder road!"
A song lyric that makes me cry, somewhat inexplicably, is, “You ain’t a beauty, but, hey, you’re alright.” It just catches me by the heart every time I hear “Thunder Road.” What a weird thing to say to someone you’re ostensibly in love with!
I’ve cried at a lot of strange things (Ralph Breaks the Internet, for probably 89% of that very bad movie’s run time) and a lot of strange songs (I can’t even think about John Lithgow singing “The Inchworm”), but I’m starting to notice that a lot of the media that makes me cry incorporates some kind of shift in point-of-view. The speaker comes to some kind of revelation about themself by singing about someone else. And that moment where the perspective changes — that’s where the water works start flowing.
Most songs that make me cry in this specific way come from musical theatre. The character will be singing about something bigger than themself — usually an act of God — and then, all of a sudden, they’ll start singing about the person or situation right in front of them, putting love in direct conversation with the divine or the unattainable. It’s emotionally overwhelming! For the character and for the audience member.
I’ve circled this idea before, in my love letter to Motel the Tailor for The Niche. “‘Miracle of Miracles’ [from Fiddler on the Roof] is one of the most powerful love songs in the whole entire musical theatre canon because it puts enormous biblical miracles — David slaying Goliath, Daniel in the lion’s den — in conversation with something as simple as a love requited,” I wrote at the time. “‘Of all God’s miracles large and small, the most miraculous one of all,’ Motel sings, ‘is the one I thought could never be: God has given you to me.’”
Think of how special that is! Motel literally feels religious ecstasy over his love for Tzeitel — it’s the only way he can think of to quantify the intensity of his emotions. Imagine someone feeling so deeply for you that they have to 1. sing about it and 2. compare that feeling to how it must have felt for the Israelites to receive manna from God in the wilderness. At the end of the song, all of a sudden, the macro becomes micro. The perspective shifts. These big, divine feelings get transposed onto the love Motel and Tzeitel share.
“The Origin of Love” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch spends five minutes spinning an enormous, epic yarn, cobbled together from dozens of religious and spiritual traditions, explaining how human beings came to be and, subsequently, how we came to love.
It’s sonically overwhelming in a way that “Miracle of Miracles” is not. The story is usually told by the actor and through projections, light and sound coalescing, climaxing, to tell the tragic story of the Children of the Sun, the Children of the Moon, and the Children of the Earth. All the gods are in on it — Zeus, Osiris, Thor, an unnamed “Indian god” — arguing about their own creations, sending fires and floods and tearing us apart to punish us for our “strength and defiance.”
And then it decrescendos. The disasters stop, the fires stop. We have a broken human race, once joined at the center, doomed to spend our lives trying to sew ourselves back together.
And that’s when the perspective shifts. We introduce personal pronouns for the first time:
“Last time I saw you
We just split in two
You was looking at me
I was looking at you
You had a way so familiar
But I could not recognize
'cause you had blood in your face
And I had blood in my eyes
But I could swear by your expression
That the pain down in your soul
Was the same as the one down in mine”
All of a sudden, myth becomes reality. Eons of legend becomes the lived experience of the character. This isn’t just a story anymore! It’s real, and it hurts so much.
Sondheim, maddeningly, accomplishes this devastating perspective-shifting with just one word. “Being Alive” from Company sees commitment-phobe Bobby realizing that he does want the love, intimacy, and companionship he’s been desperately avoiding for his whole adult life.
It starts out very general. He sings about what a person would want from love:
“Someone to hold you too close
Someone to hurt you too deep
Someone to sit in your chair
And ruin your sleep”
By the end of the song, Bobby changes his tune, devastating himself by revealing his truest intentions and making the pronouns personal:
“Somebody hold me too close
Somebody hurt me too deep
Somebody sit in my chair
And ruin my sleep
And make me aware
Of being alive, being alive”
Bobby becomes an emotionally available adult with the substitution of one word. Desire and love in the abstract becomes visceral, necessary. All of a sudden, nothing is more important than Bobby’s long-avoided intimacy.
The speaker of “Thunder Road,” who I’m going to call Bruce, employs one of these perspective shifts, too. It’s a musical theatre rock song — in form and function, and also because Springsteen did it every night in his Broadway show.
We start here:
“The screen door slams, Mary's dress sways
Like a vision, she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely”
And then, because it’s a rock song and not associated with a specific character in a larger story, he has to tell us:
“Hey, that’s me, and I want you only.”
The rest of the song is addressed directly to Mary. It’s just a couple more lines before he’ll tell her she ain’t a beauty, but, hey, she’s alright.
Later in the song, Bruce will sing, “I know you’re lonely for the words I ain’t spoken.” He knows he can’t give her words — not the ones she needs, not in the way she needs them — not unlike the tension between Dot and George in Sondheim’s virtuosic Sunday in the Park With George.
But, God — that opening image. “Like a vision, she dances across the porch as the radio plays” — that’s a gift. It’s extraordinarily rare to understand precisely how someone feels about you, and maybe Mary will never get the words she needs from Bruce to feel safe and comfortable in this relationship. But “Thunder Road,” after those first two lines, functions as a long attempt for Bruce to get back to the emotional honesty of that opening image — perfectly and safely expressed because it is secret poetry, not a direct admission of love.
When Mary’s not in the car, she is a vision dancing across the porch. When Mary shows up, Bruce clams up. He even tells her she’s not beautiful. That’s the perspective shift, different from the others I’ve described because it goes from deeply intimate to deliberately distanced and not the other way around. Mary might not be able to hear it at the moment — but I think I cry when he tells her she ain’t a beauty, but, hey, she’s alright, because those opening lines tell me precisely how he feels in a way he may never be able to express to her.
“I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk,” Bruce sings. And maybe that instrument — and this song — is the only way he’ll ever truly communicate. Feelings are hard, and expressing them honestly is harder. Sometimes we need a conduit to circumvent the intensity of what we’re truly feeling.
Want to share this essay from Emily St. James about Bruce Springsteen and Taylor Swift, because I think about it literally all the time and reread it every few months.
Also, side note, no one ever did it better than Sondheim and no one ever will. I didn’t have the words to memorialize him when he died (I still don’t), because I couldn’t think of the right way to distill down someone who meant so much to me and to the theatre. We were so lucky to have him, to have access to his brain and heart for as long as we did.
I was just involved in a moving scam (lol), but I am now officially based in New York! Astoria, Queens to be specific. If you liked this essay and want to help support me as I start out in this very, very expensive city, you can tip me on Twitter or Venmo me at Sarah-Leiber.