Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sondheim Anthologies:
"You have to think the whole time!"

Thinking of putting on a show of Sondheim songs?  You're going to face people like my parents' friends.  They walked out on a fine production of Side by Side by Sondheim back in 1980. "It was terrible," they said. "You had to think the whole time!"

I'm thinking about this now because I recently saw the Atlanta premiere of Sondheim on Sondheim by Act 3 Productions, co-directed by Michelle Davis, Chris Ikner, musical director Laura Gamble, and choreographer Johnna B. Mitchell.  A portion of the audience whooped and cheered for all the showstoppers. A man was humming "Sunday" in the line for the restroom. But the woman behind me kept complaining, "I can't figure out what's going on. It's just overwhelming."  She thought she'd skip act two because she didn't know any of the songs listed in the program. 

Even knowing all the songs by heart, I have mixed feelings about this and the other anthologies.  I own recordings of them all and I've seen most of the ones pictured in my collage above.  With this Atlanta production fresh in my mind, I've got a few do's and don'ts -- mostly don'ts.  

Do sing your songs as if you are in intimate conversation.  It's good advice relayed by an observer to Barbara Cook's "master class," who writes that a young man had earned big applause for his performance.  She sat him down with her, knee to knee, held his hands, and had him sing the song directly to her.  The singer achieved new credibility and depth.  

In Sondheim on Sondheim last week, some of the performers got that right.  Michaele Postell delivered "In Buddy's Eyes" as if telling her mixed feelings to a sympathetic friend.  "Send in the Clowns," on the other hand, might have been just another pop ballad, performed straight to the audience with strong voice and energetic gestures -- but not to the lover who has just said "I'm sorry, but, it's over."  

Don't mash up the songs.  Yes, I and the whoopers do appreciate the ingenuity of intertwining two torch songs, but when the arrangers interrupt "Not a Day Goes By" at its climax to begin "Losing My Mind," they allow neither song room to breathe.   "A Weekend in the Country" was wonderful, staged during the first Carnegie Hall birthday anthology;  here we got so little of it in a medley with "Ever After" that both songs lost their punch.   Save the clever arrangements for tributes that attract the cognoscenti.  For the lady behind me, and for at least one of my own guests, all the mash-ups were puzzling. 

Don't do the songs without context.  Sweeney Todd's "Epiphany" was full of sound and fury, but -- you know the rest.  The audience was just puzzled. Who's "Mrs. Lovett?" Where are we?  What "chair?"  "Waiting Around for the Girls Upstairs" chills and thrills someone who knows what's going on, but how were the others to know that we're witnessing "ghosts?"  On the other hand, the pair of songs from Assassins were anchored in the world of that show, and got the laughs and chills they should.

That said, I cannot imagine a better provider of context than Sondheim's own interviews.  I have to confess that I found myself looking forward to Sondheim's commentary more than to the musical numbers.   In SOS, and in the documentary Six by Sondheim,  he's an engaging storyteller, giving us elegant thumbnails of each situation along with his thoughts about his intentions writing each song. He got the biggest laughs, and his anecdote about Hammerstein's last gift to him was among the most affecting moments.  (Read my review of Six by Sondheim)

Back in 1975, Ned Sherrin's clever patter gave Side by Side by Sondheim its forward movement, as each song exhibited proof of Sherrin's thesis that Sondheim was/is Broadway's most accomplished lyricist and one of its most adventurous composers. 

Don't contrive a whole new context for the songs.  Same reason:  When a man in tux sings "Hello, Little Girl" to a buxom maid in Putting it Together, the Little Red Riding Hood references are creepy- funny at first, but creepy-creepy by the time we get to specific references to crunching her bones.  For the same show, Sondheim re-wrote lyrics of "Now" from "A Little Night Music" to introduce a segment based on party games. It was an awesome stunt, but not nearly so exciting as the original "Now."

Don't take any of my advice too seriously.  "I'm Still Here" is performed way, way, way out of context in Six by Sondheim,  and it's the single most memorable bit in the movie.  A young hipster turns inside-out this anthem for an aging woman, aiming the lyrics at women of different ages in his audience.  The effect is in their facial expressions as they recognize themselves in the lyric.

Craig Lucas's Marry Me A Little breaks all my rules, creating an artificial new context for all the songs, often mashing them together.  I've never seen the show, but I understand the two characters never meet, except in mind.  Do the young man and woman face each other when they seem to be singing to a partner?   Yet, judging just from the two recordings, I sense that it's a funny, sometimes raunchy, often touching anthology.  It may help that these songs are all "lost" songs that never lived in context for most of us.

Do try.  We actors know, Sondheim writes material that brings out the best in us.  If the production gives us the right context, if the staging doesn't detract, if we don't settle for generalized feelings in songs that typically move through a spectrum of thoughts and emotions -- then we may spark new interest in the uninitiated.  Sondheim never writes for people who'd rather not think.

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