How to Tell You’re Screwed, in a Musical

In West Side Story, Tony and Maria meet, dance the cha-cha, and fall in love.  Tony, being a well-raised Polish-American former gang founder, makes an immediate booty call to Maria’s balcony.  They chat a little more, smooch, sing, and make a date to meet at a bridal shop.  There they enact a sort-of-wedding ceremony, making it OK when, later, they have sort-of-sex.  In the famous Act One quintet, anticipating this bout of post-rumble love, they sing:

Tonight, tonight,
Won’t be just any night.
Tonight there will be no morning star.

Stephen Sondheim has been openly critical of his lyrics in this score, but has reserved most of his disdain for such lines as I Feel Pretty‘s  “It’s alarming how charming I feel”.  I’ve never seen him pick on the lines above, but consider:

Of course there will be no morning star tonight.  If it appeared tonight, it would be the evening star.  By definition, Venus can’t appear both tonight and tomorrow morning.  The planet precedes or follows the sun, and cannot do both.

OK, so I’m being a pedant.  Tony and Maria are saying that tonight is a special night, not like those normal nights, that it will never end, and so there will be no morning star.  I’m not heartless; I get it.  But there are large chunks of the year where Venus, occupied with its duties as an evening star, makes no appearance as a morning star, and so those nights are not particularly special.  There are many of them, and they all end.

Granted, this is not the sort of thing I expect a Puerto Rican arriviste and a drugstore stockboy to know, especially while they’re singing.  But I do expect Sondheim, even in his late 20s, to know.  So what’s the young fox lyricist up to?

Here’s my theory.  These characters are toast, and they don’t know it.  How can we tell?  Well, they’re singing about how tonight is so special, and it will never end, but what will really happen is:

  • One of them’s gonna die, so for him the night will never end, technically.
  • The other’s going to see her lover get shot, so the night will be very, very special, but in all the wrong ways.

I know what you’re thinking.  If this lyric were by, say, Tim Rice, I would dump upon it from a mighty height, then go my merry way.  But because it’s a Sondheim lyric, I’ve been obliged to twist this logic pretzel and eat it, in order to maintain my grovelling obeisance to my Dark Lyric Lord, my Lucifer, my morning star.

True.

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