I came across the Kerry Ellis Anthems version first. It hums and pulses and lands on forte sections every now and then thanks to an active string section and Ellis’ smooth voice for three minutes before Kerry really gets to whale on the song, and by the end she and Brian are in full shred mode, the way that they do for other showtunes like “I’m Not That Girl” and “Defying Gravity” on the album. The Ellis-May partnership has interested me since they first got together, because as great as Ellis and Freddie Mercury are, and as similar as they can be once they get to belting, the two of them have fundamentally different tones. Freddie was husky in quieter moments (“Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy”), leering vocally at us in some of the mezzoforte hits (“Killer Queen”), but like ribbed lightning Kerry has more of a rasp in her quiet and loud moments alike, maybe the only thing to remind us that friction exists in a voice which is otherwise perfect inertia. In either event, Brian May is the right guitarist for both; few rock guitarists have ever provided a finer complement for his vocalist so consistently as May.
In any event, the Kerry Ellis version is an elite ’80s power ballad, except instead of being addressed to Mark or Brian, it’s addressed to God. Placed near the end of an absolutely endless musical, Kristina from Duvemala, which takes a Scandinavian’s pleasure in the struggles and overbearing pain of a Swedish emigrant family, it is the first time that Kristina has questioned her faith in God. This is no small thing; she comes from a historically religious part of Sweden, and in the musical she leans on her faith more than once. The song ends with a subtle affirmation of her belief in God after the trauma of wondering if there is, in fact, somebody up there. She never fully disbelieved, really; like Blaise Pascal, who found it inconceivable to believe or doubt the existence of God, Kristina has made God real for much too long to ever give up on the idea.
The English translation of the lyrics references God less frequently than the original Swedish, and it’s a distinct advantage. The song can get bogged down in the prayer; it’s when it becomes more abstracted that it becomes more powerful. In English this is a cry to the universe, a plaintive, desperate begging for reassurance. So many of the “Are you really there, God?” pieces, and not just the ones in musicals, devolve into “I am so angry at God!” These tend to be uninteresting, not because the concept is uninteresting but because it is no longer novel. They lead to rejection as often as not, and where the embrace of God is culturally (and unfairly) wired to signify “stupid,” the rejection of God is culturally (and unfairly) wired to signify “disillusioned.” There’s nothing about “You Have to Be There” which calls to mind disillusionment; this is a song about pain, about distress that can no longer be borne. She is as earnest as ever, but so much more hurt. “Are you really there, God?” is rendered as “You have to be there/You have to,” and Kristina wonders, a little panicky, what will happen if that’s not the case. It’s a cosmic case of searching for your car keys in your pocket and praying they aren’t locked in the ignition; Kristina has lost something, misplaced something, and despairs just a little of not being able to find it again. This is a message about God more powerful than some inane preacher’s sermon. This is stark realism, the fervent belief that God is out there, maybe a belief pinned on feeling or remembering some numinous moment, but the utter inability to connect with him anymore.
The Ellis-in-English version is powerful. But the Helen Sjoholm performance – and from what I can tell, this is Sjoholm’s role in the way that people associate Idina Menzel with Elphaba or Colm Wilkinson with Valjean – is unbelievable. I don’t speak Swedish or anything, but having some knowledge of the lyrics is enough to make her facial expression and her voice unbelievably affecting. The first video features her singing the part in a 1996 concert, and she is simply transcendent. Part of it, I think, is that the song is in Swedish. Swedish is just guttural enough that the hurt in the song comes through a touch more than it does in English; similarly, there’s more “oo” in Swedish than English, and long vowels, as we all know, sound better than short vowels. Sjoholm takes advantage of the language to its full effect for a performance which, don’t ask me just how but I think it has to do with her mouth and the lines in her forehead and her soft blue eyes, combines the pathetic with the majestic. She is supplemented by Benny Andersson’s score. Once again, as it was in Chess, ABBA uber alles. Andersson balances the rhythmic and quick by repeating the musical phrase so that we hear all of it, and once we’re comfortable with that provides opportunities to hold out notes. There’s nothing terribly complex about it, but it is pleasing, and in this case pleasing is intoxicating. The lyrics (Bjorn Ulvaeus and, in English, Herbert Kretzmer) are fine and good but the music is what makes this song a true heartbreaker.
The central image of the song is that of a body being pummeled by a “dark and rising sea,” where God is (or perhaps can be) an outstretched hand to rescue our heroine from the water. There’s a lot to unpack here. For one thing, the play sends Kristina and her family to America from Sweden by boat. For another, water is a dual symbol of birth; first, the thought of being in the womb again, and second, the new birth that comes from baptism. It would be easy to hear this song once and to pass on the image of being tossed by the dark and rising sea as merely a strong image, but it takes on a great blackness in context. Kristina has just miscarried again and has been told that another pregnancy will kill her. Before any real form of birth control, this puts Kristina’s life at terrible risk; a few years after the events of Kristina from Duvemala, Ashley Wilkes will choose to stay away from his wife Melanie’s bed for much the same reasons. It’s no wonder that the sea is so dangerous for a woman who can’t be a mother again without being a corpse. Aside from that, baptism plays a role here; will she, soaked by the waves of capricious tragedy, be born again as an atheist? Or will it, in the way of the Baptists who inject themselves in the play, be a sign of rededication and thoughtful devotion to God?