Nineteen year-old Stephen Sondheim and twenty-four year-old Harold Prince met in 1949 on opening night of South Pacific. Sondheim was the best man at Prince’s wedding. Prince then produced West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sondheim’s first two lyrical forays on Broadway. In 1970, the two started an unprecedented 11-year run partnering a composer/lyricist with a producer/director. The result? Six unconventional musicals, “each its own world, daring and original, challenging their audiences and the art form.” (Host David Loud) Broadway Close Up’s final concert of the season celebrates this unique confederacy. It’s a terrific concert and a pity to be mounted only once.
Young Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince
The show is bookended by 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along, the last effort of this iconic Broadway partnership. (Sondheim and Prince collaborated on Bounce out of town.) Our host was cast in the original and regales us with both his exciting, personal experience and an insider’s perspective on the ill-fated production. “I took a photo of myself in a booth at Grand Central Station and paper clipped it to my brief resume… 21 of us made our Broadway debuts…a million dollars worth of costumes were jettisoned (when Prince decided to use sweatshirts with characters’ names on them)…never did the same show twice…the last 40 minutes were great but we lost our audience by the time we got there – literally…” He’s extremely funny. Merrily closed in two weeks, the day of David Loud’s 19th birthday. “That month of fervent, hysterical activity was the most fun I ever had in a show.” Stephen Sondheim
Liz Callaway was the lead female understudy for Merrily. The actor/vocalist, clearly beloved by this audience, performs “Old Friend” and “Now You Know” partly, with affection, to Loud who understudied Charlie. Gliding through difficult octave changes, she pairs her own brand of completely natural characterization with adroit vocal skill.
Earlier in the show, Callaway provides one of its highlights, a rollicking “Getting Married Today” from Company during which, sporting a veil, she anxiously flees out a side door, enters on the theater floor, hysterically pleads with us to “GO HOME!” and climbs on the stage with the comic awkwardness of Fanny Brice as Kate Baldwin plies her with anesthetic champagne.
Company was formulated from three one-act plays writer George Furth brought to Prince. Each featured a couple and the odd-man-out central character who was single. Numbers commented on the action. Loud cites it as the first concept musical. Before starting the project, Sondheim questioned Mary Rodgers about being married. The opening number contains a secret thanks with the line “Hank and Mary get in tomorrow.” (Rodgers’ second spouse was Henry Guettel.)
Leslie Kritzer’s clarion “Another Hundred People” shows neither stress nor roughness in its soaring, sympathetic delivery. The same can be said for an unfussy rendition of “Losing My Mind” (Follies) that seems to round hard notes. Kritzer is less successful as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, where her accent makes the clever “A Little Priest” almost unintelligible.
Daniel McGrew (a find!) performs “Being Alive” (Company) in the most beautiful, longing-imbued tenor. The artist also styles just the right tone – “beeootefil”- for posturing impresario Roscoe of Follies, showcases viable Cockney accent and ingenuous inflection in “Pretty Lady” (Pacific Overtures) and sings a mouthwateringly evocative “Johanna” (Sweeney Todd.)
Sondheim’s initial idea for Follies was a murder mystery featuring ex follies’ girls. When Prince came across a photo of Gloria Swanson in the rubble of The Roxy Theater, the show changed direction. Loud points out the show’s numbers have “two flavors,” either pastiche recreations elevated by the composer/lyricist or book songs. Follies garnered seven Tonys including Best Director and Best Score, but lost its entire original investment. Best Musical that year went to – wait for it – Two Gentlemen of Verona. When told, the audience moans. Loud calls the show “the Holy Grail of cult musicals.”
Laura Darrell and Lewis Ceale; Laura Darrell and David Loud
Laura Darrell’s “Broadway Baby” (Follies) is one of two unfortunately arranged solos this evening. Through no fault of the fine singer, we’re taken out of the show’s context to a delicate rendition that eschews pluck and period. (The other is the great Kate Baldwin’s “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company which comes off as an ersatz jazz nightclub number.) Darrell is well cast as the young, oblivious Anne Egerman in A Little Night Music and provides amusing foil for Follies’ “Buddy’s Blues.”
Lewis Ceale and Leslie Kritzer; Lewis Ceale
Singing “Buddy’s Blues” is new-to-me Lewis Ceale who veritably inhabits the character navigating its flamboyant, staccato/wah-wah lyric like a prime vaudeville performer – a second highlight. Ceale’s deep, resonant, grainy contribution to “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” acts as ballast. His Pacific Overtures’ sailor feels fresh off the boat; portrayal of Frederik Egerman (A Little Night Music) is aptly pompous.
The gifted Kate Baldwin performs “Could I Leave You?” (Follies) a bit too self consciously for my taste, though her voice is, as always, sterling. Later, “The Hills of Tomorrow” (Merrily) arrives timeless and pristine. Baldwin’s contributions stand out in “Remember” (A Little Night Music) and “Our Time” (Merrily).
Joseph Thalken and Kate Baldwin
Sondheim and Prince had long been discussing a European operetta piece when they landed on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night. Loud calls out the musical’s “Ravel-like score in ¾ time.” For the first act finale, Prince envisioned a complicated company number with characters reacting to Desiree’s invitation. Staging was improvised to inspire Sondheim. The composer/lyricist returned with “A Weekend in the Country” which appeared opening night duplicating Prince’s experiment. The company here gives us a beguiling interpretation. Listen – how literate! How character specific! How enchanting!
Pacific Overtures was essentially the history of the westernization of Japan starting in 1853 as told through two Samurai, one who clung to tradition, the other who embraced modernity. The company’s “The Adventures of Floating in the Middle of the Sea” is inventively rendered with graceful, synchronized hand movement. Sondheim, we’re told, “was writing from the point of view of a Japanese who had perhaps seen a few musicals. Using the principle of less is more, he reinvented his lyrical style.” Prince, in turn, decided to cast the entire show, even non-Asian roles, with Asians. “Tonight in a never before theatrical stunt, we present three Caucasian actors playing three Asian actors playing three British sailors. Don’t try this at home.”
A simply wonderful “Poems” sung entirely in Haiku, is performed by Daniel McGrew and Kevin Massey while ostensibly following a narrow path and jumping over rocks. Massey has already given us a lovely “Good Thing Going” (Company) as well as warm contributions to “Sorry Grateful” (Company) and “Getting Married Today” (Company.) He seems to lose his focus during Merrily’s “Our Time.”
Loud cites Scenic Designer Boris Aaron’s benefaction to Sweeney Todd (and several other Prince/Sondheim shows) as immutable. Entering the theater to a stage bulging with the industrial interior of a factory conjured the depths of polluted, poverty-stricken London. Everything was initially visible except a portion covered by a sheet which had printed on it The Beehive, a chart of the British class system. Our host conjectures that here Sondheim was influenced by film composers.
Tonight’s finale, alas, tries to combine too many songs resulting in robust mud.
“The primary things about (Harold) Prince were his enthusiasm and optimism. (Stephen) Sondheim referred to himself as a low flame and Prince as a high one. He was the pessimist of the two…Is it selfish to wonder what might’ve happened if they’d continued working together? Never mind, let’s be happy with what we have.” David Loud
Noah Racey’s Stage Direction and Choreography are outstanding.
The company sings together with artistry.
David Loud is entertaining, illuminating, articulate and funny.
Musicianship is blue-chip.
Photos by David Andrako
Opening: Kate Baldwin, Laura Darrell, Kevin Massey, Daniel McGrew, Lewis Cleale, Leslie Kritzer
Broadway Close Up
A Good Thing Going: The Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince Collaboration
David Loud-Music Director/Arrangements/Host
MD/Piano- Joseph Thalken
Musicians: Bruce Doctor, Bill Ellison, Sarah Seiver, Justin Vance, Robert Zubrycki
Noah Racey-Stage Director
Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Music Center
December 4, 2017