Saturday, May 5, 2012

For the Love of Sondheim

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

The key to making a good musical, besides having good material, is the staging and the tone it establishes. Which means sometimes a musical that normally doesn't impress a critic, such as in the case of Stephen Sondheim's Company with Steve Vineberg, can finally win him over.


The Marriage Musical: Stephen Sondheim's Company

For Stephen Sondheim aficionados, Company is beloved as the watershed musical that established him as a musical-theatre innovator. In a number of his early musicals he supplied the lyrics for the music of older, established composers (Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story, Jule Styne on Gypsy, Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz?). His professional debut as a composer-lyricist was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962, but that was an old-fashioned vaudeville along the lines of Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse – and bizarrely, though the score was ingenious, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove’s libretto received all the attention. (His other solo effort, a strained, distinctly sixties satirical farce called Anyone Can Whistle, closed after 11 performances. The Encores! series of concert-style musical revivals at New York’s City Center staged it two seasons ago with a superlative cast, but engaging as the production was you could see exactly why the show had bombed in 1964.)

Company, a study in contemporary relationships, is often called a conceptual musical – not the first in Broadway history, but the first to enjoy critical and popular success. Sondheim himself points to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1947 Allegro, which uses the bare-bones life story of a small-town boy who pursues a medical career as a means to explore themes of individuality and compromise  an unlucky attempt by squares to put something like Sinclair Lewis’s sensibility on the musical stage  as an inspiration for the kind of work he began to do with Company, and Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Weill had tried something similar in their 1948 Love Life, a series of observations about marriage through history.Company, which Lonny Price staged earlier this year at the New York Philharmonic and which played around the country in HD this summer, is built around thirty-five-year-old Robert’s friendships with five Manhattan couples. (They don’t form any sort of social set  the couples have no interaction with each other. Sondheim explains in his book Finishing the Hat that when they get together to surprise Robert on his birthday, the effect of juxtaposing these strangers is meant to be surreal, but it’s only puzzling we wonder how they got each other’s names to plan the party.) The only single person among them, Bobby (Neil Patrick Harris) resists making any sort of romantic commitment, opting instead for light, no-strings-attached affairs with three women. Only at the end of the evening, when he sings, first haltingly and then fervently, the commitment ballad “Being Alive,” does he resolve to enter the world of monogamous relationships that his friends have long inhabited.

The biggest problem with the musical has always been that the hero’s eleven-o’clock page-turning is an improbable leap. George Furth, who wrote the book, and Sondheim (to a lesser extent) are cynical about romance; Bobby’s friends present doubtful models for a happy romantic future. Harry (Stephen Colbert) and Sarah (Martha Plimpton) are competitive with each other  during the song “The Little Things You Do Together,” they face off in a judo match  and constantly needle each other about their weaknesses: he’s on the wagon after a D&D charge, she struggles to diet. Peter (Craig Bierko) and his southern-cutie wife Susan (Jill Paice) divorce but then he moves right in to take care of the family, though he has his eye out for extramarital possibilities, including gay ones. When Bobby gets David (Jon Cryer) and Jenny (Jennifer Laura Thompson) stoned, she loosens up, then decides she prefers to be uptight, and David, who has shown signs of wanting a less straitened lifestyle, closes down, accepting Jenny’s standards for both of them. (Though he enjoys himself thoroughly, he dismisses Bobby’s offer to score him some pot.) Amy (Katie Finneran) and Paul (Aaron Lazar) are about to be wed after years of living together  and, in her case, of analysis.

But though she loves him the prospect of marriage is so terrifying that it paralyzes her. Anyway, they aren’t a good match: he’s a puppy dog who leaves her love notes on napkins, she’s a neurotic wreck who makes jokes about suicide. And Joanne (Patti LuPone), who’s perhaps a decade older than all the other women Bobby’s friendly with, is a bitter alcoholic who mistreats her wealthy third husband Larry (Jim Walton). Considering her behavior when she gets soused, and her infidelities (in the musical’s penultimate scene, she even makes a pass at Robert), it’s a wonder that Larry sticks it out. Eventually we find out why: his father walked out on his mother and regretted it for the rest of his life, and Larry is afraid to make the same mistake. So he stays married to Joanne, convincing himself that he’s not as unhappy as the evidence indicates he must be.

Even as a college student, when I saw the original 1970 production of Company, I found Furth’s script arch, trite, pointlessly acrid and aggravatingly self-conscious. Furth’s observations about his WASP marital warriors are recycled from Updike novels and Albee plays, and they haven’t improved with age. But whatever I may have thought of the book, I definitely fell in love with Sondheim’s music and lyrics. And the ballads  “Sorry-Grateful,” “Someone Is Waiting,” “Barcelona”  really are lovely. But the meant-to-be-withering indictment of marriage you get in “The Little Things You Do Together” (“It’s not talk of God or the decade ahead that / Allows you to get through the worst / It’s ‘I do’ and ‘you don’t’ and ‘nobody said that’ / And ‘who brought the subject up first?’”) and the satiric treatment of the quiet desperation of upper-middle-class housewives you get in Joanne’s big number “The Ladies Who Lunch” (“Here’s to the girls on the go / Everybody tries / Look into their eyes and you’ll see what they know / Everybody dies”) seem a lot more savvy when you’re nineteen. At sixty, I find these portraits of the articulately miserable ungenerous and unconvincing. The lyrics could use more Chekhov with less art. Yes, some of the songs are genuinely clever (the title number) and some are really funny (“You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” and Amy’s breakdown patter song “Getting Married Today”). Others, like “Have I Got a Girl for You,” insist on making sure we can’t miss just how clever they are, and they sit on the cusp of mean-spiritedness and self-pity.

The difficulty of accepting Company’s hopeful conclusion isn’t just that you don’t know why, given the relationship models Robert sees around him, he might suddenly decide it’s a good idea to find one of his own. Nothing about him suggests that he’s even looking for love except for the song “Someone Is Waiting,” which comes out of the blue. So does his response to Joanne’s barroom pass in the penultimate scene: when she promises to take care of him if they become lovers, he asks, “But who will I take care of?” She’s so startled that she backs off immediately, observing that she thinks she just heard a door open that’s been stuck for a long time and telling the faithful Larry, who’s wandered back to the table after paying the check, that she’s done Bobby a big favor. This revelation is out of character for Joanne, and the encouragement he receives from all his married friends when he starts to sing “Being Alive”  “You don’t have one good reason for being alone,” “It’s better living it than looking at it,” and so on  appears, given the scenes from five marriages we’ve witnessed through the evening, so lacking in self-awareness that you wait for the other shoe to fall. Are these wretched married people looking for another poor sucker to pull into the calamitous vortex of married life, like alcoholics who want everyone else to drink with them? If so, then the tone of “Being Alive,” which longs for the plunge into commitment, is all wrong. At one point Sondheim’s plan was to end the musical with a jaded tune called “Happily Ever After,” which certainly isn’t as impressive as “Being Alive.” But to make it work dramatically and emotionally you’d have to alter Bobby’s throughline or at least write in a shift. (Another song that Sondheim wrote for Company and then discarded, “Marry Me a Little,” is now regularly interpolated into revivals for Bobby to sing before the first-act curtain. Harris performs it so well that you’re grateful for the addition.) 

The 2007 Broadway production directed by John Doyle received the same kind of enthusiastic notices Doyle got when he staged Sweeney Todd the season before. Both versions were highly theatrical, with actor-singers doubling for the band  an idea that seemed inspired in Sweeney Todd but gimmicky and overworked in Company. The only actor not playing an instrument was Raúl Esparza as Robert, then at the end of the show he sat down at the piano and accompanied himself on “Being Alive.” You got the idea: he realizes that it’s high time he too played in the band. Lonny Price’s pared-down version, in which the actors propel themselves around the stage on sofas, is breezier than Doyle’s; the effect of the short rehearsal period is that the show feels less fussed-over, more improvisational. And Harris has a great deal of sexual charm; in the right roles (like this one) he could be an American Rupert Everett. All Esparza had in the part was an almost frightening show-biz resoluteness  he seemed to think he was Liza Minnelli. The supporting cast here isn’t as polished an ensemble as Doyle’s, but they’re permitted to bring quite different personalities to the production, and the variety-show-style results lift some of the weight off the show’s big-deal concept. Not everyone comes through  Craig Bierko looks uncomfortable as Peter; and as Sarah, Martha Plimpton, who had precisely the right style to play the hard-boiled showgirl in the Roundabout revival of Pal Joey a couple of years ago, underscores every irony with a red pen, when what the musical needs is less self-awareness. Stephen Colbert isn’t a musical-theatre performer but he approaches the role of Harry so gamely that he places you solidly on his side, and he certainly doesn’t disgrace himself when he opens his mouth to sing. On the other hand, you’re too conscious that Anika Noni Rose, as Robert’s earthy paramour Marta, has killer technique when she sings “Another Hundred People.” But it’s not entirely her fault, since the song is written to stop the show.

Jon Cryer hasn’t, to my knowledge, done any previous musicals, but he comes across as an old pro: his timing is impeccable and he’s utterly relaxed. The other easily recognizable TV performer in the cast, Christina Hendrickson of Mad Men, plays April, the flight attendant whose one-night stand with Bobby turns into something more when she mistakes his morning-after playfulness for earnestness. (He ends the scene in a moment of sheer panic.) It’s a sweet little interlude built around a duet, “Barcelona” (that’s the destination of the flight April has to leave Bobby’s apartment to sign in on), that never fails to work, but I don’t think I’ve seen it performed better. The real surprise, though, is Patti LuPone  not because you don’t expect high quality from her but because as written Joanne’s two songs, “The Little Things You Do Together” and “The Ladies Who Lunch,” are like bowling balls slammed straight at the audience. Elaine Stritch, who created the role, made “The Ladies Who Lunch” a signature ballad, but its combination of bitter truth-telling and masochism and I’m-still-standing self-aggrandizement embodied the most unpleasant qualities in both the performer and the songwriter. (You could make a list of the Sondheim numbers that followed in its wake: “I’m Still Here” from Follies, “Every Day a Little Death” fromA Little Night Music, “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George.) LuPone is smart enough to understate “The Little Things You Do Together” (it’s the first time that lyric has ever made me chuckle) and to debone “The Ladies Who Lunch” so that instead of seeming wise and superior, the song becomes ineffably sad. You can see why any musical-theatre director would kill for a chance to get LuPone into a production. If you need further evidence, listen to her performance of “Invisible” on the original cast album of last season’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

When all’s said and done, of course, Company is still Company, and I’m not one of its fans. But this is the way to mount it  with panache and good humor and without all the complicated staging apparatus. I still remember Boris Aronson’s glass-and-steel set, with its working elevator  the show looked amazing in 1970. But where this musical is concerned, a softer, less obtrusive approach is a better choice.   

- originally published on August 15, 2011 in Critics at Large.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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