I would be the first to admit I am a theater snob. I am a big theater fan, of course, and since I used to be in new York I would see the best of the bests. I still have no time for touring companies (I always say these are the people not good enough to be on the boards) and there were times I would scoff at local productions. But fate has landed me in Los Angeles, and it’s Tinseltown here all day all night that there isn’t much of a theater scene. Still, there are some small gems to be found if you look hard enough. The Odyssey Theater Ensemble in West Los Angeles is doing a production of ‘Side By Side by Sondheim’ and it has piqued my interest. This is a piece that is not touched frequently, and the only thing I know of it is from an Original London Cast Recording. It’s a mostly chamber piece, and to be honest, it has been ages – decades – since I last listened to that cast recording. So my interest was certainly piqued, though of course I wasn’t expecting too much. I told myself, at the very least, I will be hearing Sondheim songs being sung, and that’s much better than Netflix and Chill (theoretically, of course)
That’s my fault, I fear. This is a small diamond production. It is not of the highest grade, but it does well with what it has got, and the production serves the brilliant material well. The cast of four (Rachel McLaughlan, Chris Kerrigan, Sarah Busic, and Mark Kaufman) sing on pitch, and on some numbers even shine on their interpretations. But I sense some greenness – Busic has a little tendency to oversell a song (such as in ‘Losing My Mind’) and McLaughlan has minor tics that distract (she winks at wrong moments) Kerrigan fares better mostly, and has a vocal range that can navigate the intricacy of Sondheim’s music. Kaufman has a lot less to do, essaying the narrator part, and is mostly unmemorable. All in all, they are competent, though, frankly, not top notch.
But that’s me being a showqueen bitch. This is a small production, and it provides enough joys for an evening, It’s better than an episode of ‘Queer Eye’ on Netflix on a random Saturday night, and in my book, that is good.
I discovered ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ not from an epiphany. There was a time I was reading everything I could about Broadway after I first arrived in the United States in 1984. Of course, I had discovered Stephen Sondheim and his work. I listened to his shows on cassette, and there was just something that attracted me to ‘Merrily We Roll Along.’ I had read that it was a massive flop, but the score resonated a lot with me. I remember rewinding ‘Old Friend’ over and over again on my Walkman, and I remember mornings walking to my High School listening to ‘Good Thing Going.” Maybe because I was a teenager then, and I could somehow relate to this young people singing this very adult score.
Cut to now. I have since then seen quite a few productions of Merrily, and while I still marvel at its glorious score, I am jaded enough to realize it is a problematic show. The book is still clunky, and I know Sondheim won’t let it be touched. Still, though, there’s something about the show that just fascinates. It’s quite layered I always see something new in it, and it can be interpreted and updated with so many different eyes.
So it’s with great fascination that I watch Lonny Price’s ‘The Best Worst Thing That Could Have Happened.” I have had a tempestuous relationship with this film – it was never shown in any movie theater near me, and I was obsessed with finding it, until I came to a point when I just gave up and told myself to wait for it on video. And of course, it is now streaming on Netflix, and couldn’t be more accessible.
And it’s glorious – telling the story of the young cast that got thrown into the wolves, meaning Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince. Imagine being a kid and being chosen to be in the company of those two mean. We see how their wide eyed innocence marred by the euphoria of being in the show, and the high fail when the show closed after only sixteen performances. I knew a lot of the details in the documentary, but to see these people talking and reliving their experiences gave the story with such a human angle that it touched me. We get to see what happened to some of these cast members after the fall – how Jason Alexander became a household name; how Ann Morrison ended up in Sarasota, Florida teaching disabled children; how Lonny Price ended up directing Sondheim’s later output. By the time we get to their reunion concert in 2002, and how they go back to their old Alvin Theater dressing rooms, nary an eye would be dry. This documentary is in itself a journey, and it is one of the most fulfilling things I have ever seen in a long long time.
Judy Collins is of course no stranger to Sondheim. Her version of ‘Send In The Clowns’ garnered Sondheim his first chart hit, although Sondheim once said if he had known that the song would be such a ‘hit,’ he would not have written it. But here we are years later, and Collins is finally releasing an all-Sondheim album. And it is truly one of the most wonderful things in the world right now. I have listened to it incessantly – early in the morning, while working, even while on the elliptical at the gym. I cannot get enough of it. The greatest thing about it? She knows how to interpret a Sondheim lyric. If you are going to sing his songs, then you better know what you are singing about. She knows the right pauses, the internal rhymes, the word imagery. And she sings with an inimitable personal style – a mix of knowing melancholy. There’s a fine strain of sadness there that is unique and just hers. My favorites: a guarded ‘Not While I’m Around,’ a misty ‘Not A Day Goes By,’ a character-driven ‘Liaison.’ Her ‘Move On’ has a determination I don’t think I have ever heard before. This is required listening not only for Sondheim or theater folks, but for everyone.
Sixteen seems to be a significant number for ‘Merrily We Roll Along.’ In 1981, this show, by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, played sixteen performances on Broadway, and here we are now at 2016. with grand revival directed by Michael Arden at The Wallis Annenberg Center of Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California. There have been some performances for this problematic show since then – an off Broadway revival, some concert performances, an Encores! production – but it has never gone back on the Broadway boards. Back then, the consensus was that the non-linear format of the show was a struggle, and audiences were confused. But there’s a lot of brilliance there, and there is that often quoted Clive Barnes line: “Whatever you may have heard about it — go and see it for yourselves. It is far too good a musical to be judged by those twin kangaroo courts of word of mouth and critical consensus.”
The book is still a bit of a mess, and reportedly Sondheim doesn’t want it revised in any way. But Arden (He is the Artist In Residence for Wallis Annenberg) uses devices to make things a little more manageable. There is a lot of characters in the scene, and in his staging, those not most pertinent in the scene act as voyeurs. The main characters of the piece – Frank, Mary and Charlie – are front and center most of the time, and the corresponding actors – Aaron Lazar, Donna Vivino, and Wayne Brady are all more than competent in holding the stage. Lazar has great leading man presence and I was pleasantly surprised by Brady’s comedic timing and musicality. However, Vivino is the real star of the show for me, with her solid voice caressing these wonderful Sondheim standards. I can’t think of a throwaway song here, and Vivino singing ‘Not A Day Goes By’ at Frank’s wedding will haunt me for a long time.
But there are limitations – you don’t know who to root for – and by the time you realize the conceit of the show, you kind of scratch your head and try to remember how it ‘started.’ But as Barnes said, judge for yourself. I have a very particular affinity for the score – for me, Sondheim’s second best only to ‘Passion’ – so I had a great emotional connection to this production.