For my next entry on the art of the villain song, let me show you how a villain can lose on all fronts and still make his exit seem like a victory. This song, which essentially functions as the show’s eleven-o’clock number, serves as the parting words by Steven Kodaly, a heartless cad who uses and manipulates his on-again, off-again girlfriend Ilona and has an affair with his boss’ wife that drives his boss to a suicide attempt, yet is so charming you can’t really bring yourself to dislike him. Just before this song, he has been exposed, fired and dumped by Ilona, yet he makes his exit with perfect poise. This song, an epic combination of withering sarcasm, condescension and veiled threat, conveys all the contempt of flipping the bird with all of the grace and poise of an ironic bow. It serves to make Kodaly’s exit from the show one of the grandest in Broadway history, and certainly stands as one of the theater’s all-time great villain songs.
Last time on the art of the Villain Song, we learned how beautiful and ennobling music and seemingly innocent lyrics can highlight the essential goodness of an apparent villain; this time we’ll see how those same techniques can be used for straight-up irony, as a horrifying contrast to the actual situation. Sondheim has always been the King of this technique; he’s used it throughout his career, especially in Sweeney Todd, where every time the music reaches its greatest heights of beauty, you know someone is plotting murder, or about to attempt murder, or just straight-up committing murder. The music in this particular musical, a twistedly comic vaudeville about real-life Presidential assassins, is disturbingly light and tuneful almost throughout, but this song is a special case. It’s a gorgeous Pop-Folk ballad, in the vein of acts like the Carpenters, except that because Sondheim is Sondheim, it’s far more beautiful and melodic than even the best songs ever released by those artists. It’s the most beautiful song in the entire show, actually…so naturally, it’s given to John Hinckley, the deranged stalker who tried to kill Ronald Reagan, as he sings of his obsession with actress Jodie Foster, and then to Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, the Charles Manson disciple who tried to shoot Gerald Ford, as a profane hymn to her murderous leader. If that sounds incredibly disturbing, that’s the idea…it’s that kind of musical. Even limiting myself to Sondheim’s oeuvre, I could have chosen any number of songs from Sweeney Todd, or such other items as “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures, as an example of this particular form, but I selected this one because its real-life connections give it a particular resonance. There’s a creeping horror to hearing Hinckley and Fromme sing a beautiful love song that you just don’t get from a purely fictional killer like Sweeney Todd, no matter how well the song in question is written.
So here we come to the second part of my extended series on villain songs. This song is a similar but subtly different phenomenon from the see-it-all-through-the-villain’s-eyes sort of song we discussed last time. This is one of those songs that only qualifies as a ‘Villain Song’ in context, and sounds for all the world like it was written for a heroic character. This can be used for disturbing irony, as is seen in much of Sondheim, or it can be used to drive home that the character isn’t really a bad person, as it is here. The imagery of this song is drawn almost entirely from the work of English poet John Milton, which suggests an interesting potential irony. For those who don’t know, the story of the fall of Lucifer as most Christians understand it is scarcely suggested by the actual Bible, and nearly all of our ideas about it were codified by Milton in his poem Paradise Lost. And given that Les Miserables‘ Inspector Javert is, like Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman, a man whose sin is taking the great lie of his job home with him (in this case, that the law is infallible and all the people he hurts in its name truly deserve it), it makes sense that he would be quoting religious ideas drawn from a popular poet rather than the actual religious texts he thinks he’s referencing. Javert is a vividly tragic character, and while the musical does flatten out some of the nuances he had in the novel (which is inevitable given the novel’s sheer length and complexity), it only highlights the central tragic paradox his character is built on. This is a man who has absolute faith in something that is ultimately not true, and it’s hardly surprising that once he’s forced to realize that fact, he cannot bring himself to go on living.
I’m preparing to do an ongoing series on the art of the Villain Song, of which this is going to be the first. Please note that I am not going to be adhering to any narrow definition of ‘Villain Songs’ popular on certain websites; my intent is to explore the whole spectrum of songs from musicals associated with villainy. Here, we’re going to explore a particular subtrope of the villain song that’s meant to make you suddenly feel actual sympathy and understanding for a character you’ve viewed as an unambiguous villain up to that point. The most famous example of that phenomenon is “Stars” from Les Miserables, and I’ll certainly get to that one at some point in this series, this one is still worth spotlighting, not only because it came long before “Stars”, but also because of the sheer, almost absurd degree to which it makes us feel sorry for a character who would seem to have no sympathetic qualities whatsoever. The character in question is a brutal, drunken, racist man who had previously sung the reactionary rant “Let Things Be Like They Always Were”, and at this point in the plot he has just murdered his wife because he caught her with another man. As his grown daughter confronts him while the police are taking him away, all he has to say for himself is “It might not’a looked like it you, but I loved her too”. And over the course of this musical scene full of halting, inarticulate words and quietly passionate music, our hearts actually bleed for this horribly unpleasant guy, to the point where we actually understand how losing his wife’s love to someone else could drive him to such a desperate act. This might be the first time this technique was used at all in a Broadway musical, and it perfectly illustrates the art of humanizing even a character who gives us no real rational reason for sympathy, simply by letting them see how the situation looks from his perspective.