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Friday, June 24, 2011

Iterations of Sondheim

Seeing the movie of Stephen Sondheim’s Company that was made of the four performances at Lincoln Center was a shock to the system. I am an over-the-top Sondheim fanatic and while not every show hits it out of the park, my senses were first jolted by a performance of Company in 1970 at the Alvin Theatre in New York City. I was a young impressionable teen and I had never seen anything like this. 

All my musical fare to date was limited to Rogers and Hart (The Boys from Syracuse and Pal Joey) and later Hammerstein (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music), Lerner and Loew (Brigadoon, My Fair Lady and Camelot), and Bye Bye Birdie, Hello Dolly ( Carol Channing was amazing but I also saw it with Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway!), and the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

All were great shows with many memorable tunes and wonderful sequential stories with easy to follow plots - stories that were structured the way you would expect them to unfold. But Company was/is something else entirely – a series of vignettes revolving around one central character, a single man in a sea of married couples. This was, in it’s time, groundbreaking. I remember that didn’t walk out of Company feeling happy and satisfied or humming anything in particular, but I was dumb struck.

Mandy  -- Born to sing Sondheim 
I’m sure part of my shock was that it talked about marriage as adults might talk about it.  This was clearly a show with music written for adults. In my own childhood home, marriage was combative and ugly, ending in divorce. For a very long time, I didn't know it could be otherwise.  Company incisively captures the highs and lows of these relationships and is both uncomfortable and brilliant.    
The other thing that made me catch my breath was it’s ending.  I had never seen a show that ended without a resolution; that was left open to interpretation, to the viewer’s projections.  It was not the what (Bobby seeks out his own life, leaving his married friends behind.) but the why. Why did he need leave them behind? I was too young to understand. No show with music had ever left me so bereft.

In the years since then I’ve seen Company twice more, not including this latest iteration. I must confess to you dear readers, that there are a few shows that I have seen a few times. At the top of this list is Sweeney Todd, another Sondheim production and IMHO, his masterpiece.  I've seen at least five versions of the show.
The first was the original with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou (1979) when the theatre was transformed into the bowels of London. Then there was a filmed version of the Broadway show. The third was an incredible revival with a ten-person cast (2005) who each played an instrument. There was no orchestra but the music was played in new Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht-like orchestrations (They of Three Penny Opera fame.) This rather stripped down bare Marxist twist on the production starred Patti LuPone (Mrs. Lovett - Tuba & percussion) and Michael Cerveris* (Sweeney - Guitar).  I just loved learning that Ms. LuPone had played the Tuba in her high school marching band!  Some years ago we took our son to a local theatre camp production starring a seventeen-year-old Sweeney with an unfortunate lisp. The family then watched in wonder at Tim Burton's interpretation starring Johnny Depp.  I call these: Sweeney Todd, Teeny Todd, Der Schweeney Todd, Ss-weeny Todd, and Burton Todd ( the opposite of Liz's encounters)  -- just to keep them straight in my head.

Patti pulls it off and then some! 
But this film version of Company was unlike any other musical I’d ever seen on film or stage. Part of it was that the performance was taking place at Lincoln Center for the audience at large, not the screen viewers. As such, each gesture and expression was done for those “out there” while the camera captured each performer up close and personal, so close in fact that you could see the amount of pancake make-up in their pores. This put each actor under unusual and untypical scrutiny. It also created a special intimacy with the performers that I really liked.  The joy of performance was etched in their high definition faces.

Look at the joy in these faces! 
I was very anxious about Patti LuPone being able to pull off The Ladies who Lunch. Elaine Stritch has owned it forever but she blew the roof off! No one does pain like Patti. Neil Patrick Harris is adorable and has a nice voice but he’s no Dean Jones or Larry Kert.  It was a treat to discover that Christina Hendricks has great comedy chops. Some of the other minor players like Martha Plimpton and Jon Cryer, to name two of the celebs in this production, are just a delight. Stephen Colbert is so happy to be part of it all but his vibrato is frequently in search of the right note.  

That said, the very best thing about this production was the sound! Wow. You’ve got the New York Philharmonic and the latest in audio film technology combining together in a small dark room with great speakers and Sondheim. His music has never sounded so majestic and rich!  That made it all worth it.

For a $15 ticket, this was a new and exciting way to experience Broadway and to reach an audience that can’t make it to New York City or can’t just drop $150 plus parking for a ticket to see a show. (Tickets for The Book of Mormon start there.) Yes, I do love going to the theatre in New York City. There is nothing like live theatre, I know I know, but this is great show, an amazing bargain and there are no bad seats. The run was limited but paved the way for more. I know I’ll be back for the next one.

*Fringe alert! Michael Cerveris is the main observer on Fringe.  He also played the pinball wizard, Tommy in the original Broadway production of The Who’s Tommy and was deliriously powerful. 

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