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  • Michael Lentz

“It’s only good”: using song to transform character in Marriage Story


I love musicals. It’s endearing to me, the way a character can take time to process something with music and poetry differently than if the character were just speaking. I understand that sometimes it can be jarring to have a character suddenly be singing; it can be hard, as a viewer, to maintain the suspension of disbelief when seemingly out of nowhere instruments are playing, a character has the perfect words to describe their newfound feelings of love, and the entire town (including random birds and other woodland creatures) suddenly has an entire dance choreographed and elaborate harmonies worked out. But on the other hand, it is precisely because of that strictly unbelievable quality of these song-scenes that they are so memorable — that melodrama turns exposition and over-sharing into something poignant and powerful.

Not everyone can get behind the conceit of musicals, but I have found great joy and solace in musicals over the years. Some of that might be nostalgic connection. My grandma loves musicals and watching them with her (on her aggressively corduroy basement couch) is deeply engrained in my memory. I can sing every word to Singin’ In The Rain or West Side Story, or Phantom of the Opera, or Beauty and the Beast, or Pete’s Dragon. When I’m having a bad day, sometimes I’ll just put on my “musicals” playlist on Spotify, which is just a collection of my favorite tracks from musicals. It helps me to hear characters express joy and sadness and confusion and tell stories in verse and chorus.

Filmmakers will sometimes choose songs with specific lyrics that tie into the narrative of the film as a way of harnessing all of the tools to advance the story or feeling of the film. But I think having actual characters singing the music in a musical holds more significant meaning. Larry Avis Brown [1], a professor of theater at Lipscomb University writes about the dramatic function of music in musicals, “Songs should express the deepest thoughts and feelings of the characters at that moment. Lyrics describe specific actions and events within the story and follow the natural speech patterns of the characters in the vernacular of the play.” Brown identifies a few kinds of songs that happen in musicals. Exposition songs are those that “inform the audience about what has happened prior to the play and what has brought the characters to this particular point in the action.” An example of an exposition song is “What Do You Do With A B.A. In English” from Avenue Q. Conflict songs can often be duets and happen “when characters struggle to attain differing goals.” An example of a conflict song is “One Day More” from Les Miserables. Narration songs “describe events that we otherwise do not see.” An example of a narration song is “We Both Reached For The Gun” from Chicago. Finally, summary songs “compress lengthy amounts of time into one number.” An example of a summary song is “Nonstop” from Hamilton: An American Musical.

When characters actually take time to explain something emotionally heavy or process something internal, that’s often when ordinary words won’t do, music and melody are needed to really carry and communicate the gravity of the situation or feeling of the character. These songs change the pace of the narrative, don’t necessarily need to advance the plot, and can give the viewer a better understanding of a particular character, a character’s relationship to other characters, or a specific thought process that other characters aren’t meant to know in the same way. It’s what makes a musical a musical: letting song explain.

This is why musicals can be hard to believe. These are the kinds of songs that I imagine are hardest to believe are actually happening in real life. In our day-to-day life, people don’t process complex emotions by running out to the countryside and spinning around in circles while an orchestra guides them toward a new outlook on life. Yet, this is the kinds of songs that makes me pine for real life to be more like the movies. They are the heart and soul of musicals, a chance to see a character explore their inner self with choreography and background dancers and sometimes an incredibly catchy, iconic chorus.

I expect to encounter and accept these moments in musicals, that’s just part of the genre. I don’t expect them in non-musicals, and I don’t encounter them in real life. In fact, at my most cynical, I believe I could actually come to resent these scenes — they can remind me of the imperfection of real life, they remind me of my isolation because I don’t have a quorum of townsfolk ready to support me and lend their voices to my joy or sadness.

So what do we do with Adam Driver singing “Being Alive” in Marriage Story? I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw the film last week. It fits into this conversation. Marriage Story is about the unravelling of Nicole (Scarlet Johansson) and Charlie’s (Adam Driver) marriage. Nicole sees Charlie as a self-absorbed genius who refuses to move to Los Angeles and won’t actually give Nicole the agency to make decisions or shape anything in their marriage. Charlie sees Nicole as a great actress and someone who’s confused about what she wants and frustrated by the idea of “not having a voice.” The Charlie, she is someone who is obsessed with Los Angeles even though life is “better” in New York. The film gives us a pretty even look into their lives and their relationship, but it does become clear the Charlie is living in denial about the true state of things and the eventual outcome that this whole divorce process is leading toward. He keeps holding onto the idea that when Nicole’s “temporary” acting gig on a new TV show is finished, the whole family (Nicole, Charlie, and their son Henry) will move back to New York City — they’re a New York family, Charlie keeps asserting.

The problem (for Charlie) is that Nicole is right about a lot of things: Charlie doesn’t seem to take Nicole’s ideas very seriously. He really doesn’t want to move from New York, so he tunes out anyone who suggests that he live in Los Angeles (Nicole, Henry, all of the lawyers). He’s nodding and agreeing and going along because he thinks it will be the easiest way to get back to his life of permanently living and working in New York City. But the film is turning. In the end, he’s not just staying in hotel rooms anymore, he has a Los Angeles apartment. He’s not working to take his play to Broadway anymore, he’s just accepted a residency at UCLA to direct a number of plays, saying “I’ll be here for a while.”

He’s not exactly defeated — even though the lawyers continually push “win/lose” language on both Nicole and Charlie — he’s changing. He’s learning how to compromise; rather, how to hold less tightly to his ideas and desires and goals in order to accommodate Nicole’s. He and Nicole have traded places. He’s now working under her terms, he’s now moving to be where she is, instead of her agreeing to live where he is. He’s now doing work he’s not completely happy with and she’s become an Emmy-nominated director. He’s changing, but this is not a bad thing. I don’t think we’re meant to feel sorry for Charlie, I think we’re supposed to recognize Charlie’s growth and celebrate Nicole’s agency. They were working in New York, now they’re living in Los Angeles. Both songs work as mirrors and echoes of Nicole and Charlie’s experiences in the marriage and the movie.

Just after they sign the divorce papers, making everything official, we see two scenes: one focused on Nicole and the other focused on Charlie. In both scenes (Nicole in Los Angeles, Charlie in New York City for the last time in the film), Nicole and Charlie are both performing songs from Stephen Sondheim’s Company.

Nicole’s scene is staged as an impromptu afternoon performance at a party at her house. She is standing and singing/dancing in between her mom and her sister and they are singing “You Could Drive A Person Crazy.” This song is all about how love and relationships can make you go crazy — but only because once you get into a relationship with someone, you realize that they are much more crazy than you first thought. It’s a great song for Nicole to sing, a nod to Nicole’s journey of freedom from Charlie in the film.

Charlie’s scene takes place in a bar. He’s with all of his theater friends. There’s music happening in the background at the bar — maybe some kind of open mic. Charlie starts telling a story about his couch, but soon realizes it’s boring and pathetic so he cuts it short. Everyone’s looking at him, trying to comfort him. He’s still mad at Nicole about little things even though they’re done, they’re divorced. Then, the piano player begins playing “Being Alive” and Charlie latches onto the song immediately. He doesn’t just sing along, he performs. And his demeanor changes. This is a song that starts out with the speaker making a list of reasons why being in a romantic relationship is a bad idea: a romantic partner will “need you too much…know you too well…put you through hell.” A romantic partner is “someone you have to let in…whose feelings you spare…who’ll want you to share a little a lot.” Needy, painful, unnecessary. He lists all these things that stifle a person’s independence and agency — these things actually sound a lot like the things that Nicole was feeling and trying to communicate to Charlie from the beginning. Midway through the song, the singer’s perspective changes. He sings about being confused and then he realizes that, even though these things come with pain sometimes, that pain, that feeling of being alive that comes with being part of a difficult, real, complicated relationship is better than being alone. The singer realizes that all relationships carry some kind of pain, some kind of intimacy, even if it’s not always the kind of ultimate intimacy that comes with a romantic relationship. These things that he is using as reasons for being alone are actually the kinds of things that remind us what it feels like to be alive. He’s realizing that even though the pain isn’t desirable and he wants to avoid it, according to the song “alone is alone and not alive.”

In an interview with IndieWire [2], Director Noah Baumbach said, of Adam Driver’s singing: “It’s good because it’s human. I wanted the song to have the same function songs do in musicals: the character arrives at another place by the end of the song. It’s story and character.”

And Driver himself said at a Q&A:

“[Charlie] is kind of teleported by this song…he’s not really taking it seriously until he’s taking it in, then I think it does kind of operate as the first time where he abstractly starts to mourn the loss of this thing…I don’t think it really hits him until he’s saying it out loud, in performance, what he’s missed…what he will be missing.”

Yes, Charlie’s been aware of all of the proceedings of the divorce, but this is the first time it’s really hitting him that Nicole’s concerns are valid and real, that he’s losing something, that he had something. Maybe he wasn’t as level-headed and honest with himself as he thought he was being, even though his marriage wasn’t perfect, it was a good thing to be a part of — a good thing to have in his life and maybe he should have worked harder to keep it.

This scene, in a powerful way, shows the real-time process of singing this song in this moment with these people in this bar, Charlie is realizing something new about himself and his life. He is processing emotion and coming to a new understanding of the world, not just through the music and lyrics, but through the act of performing them. Using his voice to speak these words changes him. This moment really accomplishes what musical play at: using song to transform. It gives us a glimpse inside the mind and process of a character, harnessing the powers of melody and poetry to help a character come to terms with their life and commit to finding a path forward.

And Charlie really is changed. Right before the song, he’s complaining about something frivolous related to Nicole. After the song, he’s in Los Angeles and he tells Nicole he’s staying. The emotional journey is complete with the realization that Charlie experiences during this song. And when he tells Nicole that he’s going to be in Los Angeles for a while, we believe Nicole when she says “it’s only good.”

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[1] Brown, Larry A. “Dramatic Function of Songs in Musicals.” Larry Avis Brown, July 2019, larryavisbrown.com/dramatic-function-of-songs-in-musicals/

[2] Thompson, Anne. “‘Marriage Story’: Noah Baumbach Deconstructs His Battle of the Sexes.” IndieWire, 8 Nov. 2019, www.indiewire.com/2019/11/noah-baumbach-marriage-story-oscars-scarlett-johansson-adam-driver-sondheim-1202188110/.


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