Two delicious dinner parties, one honoring English acting chum, Anne Reid (Last Tango in Halifax), the other at the home of Oscar winning pal, Lee Grant (Shampoo, Heat of the Night, Detective Story). A rendezvous at Grand Central Station’s Oyster Bar with grandson, Alex, now a freshman at Sarah Lawrence, then plays: one off… one on (as in Broadway). Both were Sondheim creations, Merrily We Roll Along on-Broadway, and Here We Are off-Broadway. A short but fun week in the Big Apple.
Here We Are is the lushest off-Broadway presentation I have ever seen. It is a Sondheim show, so it is a musical (sort of) but what one comes out humming in this case are the sets, the production values, the effects, and the all-star cast.
Sondheim, Broadway’s greatest talent (maybe ever) died during the show’s rehearsals, and I am going to guess that had he lived, there would have been at least two… maybe three… more songs in the second act. Not that the show looks unfinished… director Joe Mantello has seen to that… it just sounds unfinished (as in little or no music to go with the second act).
Like a lot of Sondheim, the whole thing is a bit intellectually pretentious (since it is based on a couple of Luis Bunuel movies, how could it not be?) and I would bet that it will not make any move to the more commercial/traditional venues on-Broadway. That wager placed, it must be said, that the crowd at New York’s The Shed (and it was a total sell out at on-Broadway prices) seemed to be having a marvelous time.
Merrily We Roll Along is something else altogether. At least two very recognizable tunes along with a terrific character study/story told chronologically backward, making the otherwise straightforward story even more interesting. What the leading characters become is who they are when we meet them; what is revealed is who they were before they got to where they are now.
Sondheim cannot take credit for that bit of genius… neither can George Furth, who is credited with writing the “book.” The credit for this device goes to George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart who wrote Merrily We Roll Along as a play in the 1930s. That drama took place from the Depression and moved backward to WW I. It was rather successful at the time, playing on Broadway for over half a year.
Actor/writer George Furth… along with director Hal Prince… reconceived the piece to take place in the 1980s and to move backward through time to 1955. There are still pretty much the same three main characters from the Kaufman/Hart play, but now two of them are songwriting partners… rather than a playwright, and a painter… and as is true in the original, the third is a novelist/critic and female pal/college classmate to the two men. The whole thing is so bright as to be scary and I recommend it highly.
For reasons that are unfathomable to me… this show has never been successful in the past. I am told audiences were confused by the device of going backward in time, but I am not sure why or how that could be true since audiences had no trouble “getting it” in the 1930s with the Kaufman & Hart rendition.
There is little doubt Sondheim understood that there was great power in his song Not a Day Goes By, sung bitterly by a woman experiencing the pain of divorce, and then later in the play (but earlier in her life) sung romantically by the same woman on the day of her wedding. I’m telling you… great stuff.
What went wrong in the past? Could have been casting or some myopic view held by Prince and or Furth at the time still flushed with the success of their collaboration with Sondheim on Company, or… who knows? I can simply state that it works now… and for the audiences gathering in New York to see it, and hear it, and enjoy some wonderful performances by Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) and Tony Award Winner (Carousel) Lindsay Mendez.
Not too long ago I reviewed another Sondheim masterwork (Into the Woods) which is still on the New York boards… along with Sweeney Todd which I have seen several times, including in its excellent motion picture rendition. I doubt I will make it to this latest incarnation which has… no surprise… received excellent notices.
The lights on Broadway dimmed at the news of the passing of Stephen Sondheim, but they are brightly lit now with productions showcasing his brilliance. I commend them to you.
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