We saw the new (new) Roundabout revival of She Loves Me, a classic romantic musical regarded by many as one of the best in the genre. But I’m not going to sit here and gush about its perfect songs (Harnick and Bock might be my favorite songwriting duo), its fantastic cast (Benanti? Levi? Krakowski? Y’all come back now, ya hear?), and its inspired direction (Scott Ellis proving that second chances are not to be wasted). No, you can go read just about any other review of the show for that.
Instead, let’s get deep into this musical’s central questions: What is love?
baby don’t hurt me How do we know when we find it? And why can’t we see it even when it is right in front of our faces. There’s a reason why this story has been adapted so many times, why it has gained such a popular fan following despite its short Broadway runs. These are questions we all ask ourselves at some point or another, and our answers can greatly impact how we perceive ourselves in relationship to others as well as to society.
This is part 1 of my 2-part analysis of true love in She Loves Me and how the characters’ workplace impacts their relationships and identities. Here we go, dear friend!
Amalia Bosch is confident that her date tonight will be the love of her life. The only issue is she’s never met the guy. She doesn’t even know his name. She and her ‘dear friend’ have been corresponding anonymously in letters for months, and are finally meeting for the first time. When Ms. Ritter, her colleague at a local perfume shop, questions Amalia’s hasty judgment of the man, Amalia assures her in song, “I don’t know his name or what he looks like/ but I have a much more certain guide:/ I can tell exactly what he looks like inside.” Amalia and her mystery man bond over their views, their reading interests (Amalia includes a long list of authors they both admire including Flaubert, Dumas, Swift, and Tolstoy) and she insists they are perfect for each other.
Ms. Ritter, on the other hand, has the opposite approach towards love. She seems to fall for men on first sight without knowing much about their personalities. This includes Kodaly, a wily salesman who abuses all of Ritter’s second chances. This relationship ends with Ritter vowing never to trust a man so blindly again.
Are we supposed to believe that Amalia’s approach to finding love is better? That her feelings for ‘dear friend’ are more genuine than Ritter’s naïve love for Kodaly? Perhaps when the show was first performed in 1963, this question could have been answered with a more confident ‘yes.’ Amalia faithfully persists in corresponding with dear friend and seems to be rewarded. She puts aside all doubts about his looks or status, and ends up with a great match: Georg, a co-worker she despises in person, but whose true self comes out through his anonymous writing. At the shop, Amalia and Georg are too burdened by their worries, their job status, and their pride to actually connect as real people. But when they write, they can let their true selves shine forth.
We’ve come a long way from the Lonely Heart’s Club, though. Today, our postmodern experience with social media might have us doubt the whole idea of a ‘true self.’ It is apparent now more than ever how people portray different selves in different situations. Our avatars on Facebook or OkCupid or Linkedin are manipulated to display the best possible versions of ourselves to appeal to a certain type of friend, partner, or employer. What books I list on my dating profile might lead viewers to dismiss me as too conventional, too intellectual, or too avant-garde. And does a shared interest in Flaubert ever really equate true romance? If that were the case, online dating would have solved all our romantic issues a decade ago.
And how is it that two people who claim to know each other so well hate each other upon meeting? Are the characters’ personas obliterated in the workplace because of their anxieties and pride? Or does Amalia not really know her ‘dear friend’ as well as she’d like to think?
Take the musical’s most famous number, “Vanilla Ice Cream.” Amalia, who still does not know the identity of her date, calls in sick after being stood up. She decides to send him a letter to clear up any animosity between them. Georg, meanwhile, knows her identity and guiltily brings a pint of ice cream to her home. Amalia’s song starts with her writing voice: an elegant, prosaic, and romanticized tone as if she were writing in the lofty voice of poet. It’s even typically sung with a bit of a lilting accent (in both Benanti’s and Barbara Cook’s versions).
Then her writing is interrupted by her new surprising interest in Georg. When she thinks about Georg, the lyrics become more genuine, more accessible (‘That Georg…/is not like this Georg,/ This is a new Georg/That I don’t know!”). The tempo picks up, reflecting the unpolished, rambling thoughts bouncing happily in her mind. This is the purest version of Amalia we see.
It is in this song that we see how starkly different love-letter Amalia is from the real Amalia. Love-letter Amalia is a cosmetic, manicured version of herself. She edits herself to become like the romantic heroines of her books. Georg, similarly confesses to Sipos that he lies in his letters to make himself more appealing. In order to find love with each other, Amalia and Georg have to disassemble these pretenses and approach each other as they truly are—an amalgam of all their different selves, even if they contradict each other.