In the second half of the 20th century, no one revived the Broadway musical with such verve and imagination as Stephen Sondheim.
When the pre-eminent collaboration between Rodgers and Hammerstein ended with Hammerstein's death after The Sound of Music, the fate of Broadway was up for grabs. It took only a decade until Sondheim, known at that time as one of musical theater's prime lyricists (Gypsy, West Side Story), grasped America's foremost musical genre and shook it awake. The tremors are still being felt.
The '70s cemented his reputation, and it's no exaggeration to say that if he had never written anything other than Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd, he'd still be at the head of the class. Fortunately, he continued working.
His later shows have as many admirers as detractors. Broadway babies love to debate the qualities of Sunday in the Park with George (his ode to creativity with its spellbinding first act, but pedestrian second act, though blessed by the song "Children and Art"); Into the Woods (perhaps his most appealing work); Assassins (his Kander/Ebb/Fosse inky knockoff); Passion (sour and weird); Merrily We Roll Along (with its reverse-time chronology); his musical about the entrepreneurial Mizner brothers (a mistake from the start when it was called Wise Guys , then reworked as Bounce , then re-reworked as Road Show ). Although these last shows aren't nearly as definitive as his classics, they are distinctive and intelligent and have the capacity to astonish. His brittle and bracing lyrics, full of bite and insight, are always brilliantly served by his equally bracing melodies and aching ballads. They are Sondheimesque through and through. No other composer/lyricist could have written these shows.
He's written so much material, it's no surprise that three revues have been assembled using his songs. The best one, Side By Side by Sondheim (1975), has been a continual crowd-pleaser ever since its London premiere, but it uses an old catalog. In the late '80s, producer Cameron Mackintosh wanted an update, convincing Sondheim and Side by Side's original co-creator, Julia McKenzie, to make something new out of Sondheim's more recent oeuvre. The team came up with Putting It Together, a "musical revue" (1992). Stitched together, it's a patchwork to be sure. Sondheim himself called it "pleasant but awkward," which just about sums it up. For each of its various productions -- world premiere at Oxford, England, a Broadway run in 1993, a 1998 Los Angeles production starring Carol Burnett, a London opening last year -- the show's been reworked, dropping songs and revising certain lyrics. Main Street Theater's bubbly rendition staged at Ovations Night Club uses the NY City Center playlist. That version had the distinction of bringing Julie Andrews back to the Broadway stage after nearly a 30-year absence.
The songs, taken out of context from a variety of sources (four are from his Academy Award-winning score for Dick Tracy), have been shoehorned uneasily into a threadbare plot about marital discontent versus hot young love. Act II pretty much jettisons this idea entirely, or has to twist itself into Möbius strips to keep the through-line alive.
We're at a swanky cocktail party where The Wife (Tamara Siler) and The Husband (Terry Jones), apparently rich, famous and bitchy, host The Younger Man (Justin White) and his companion The Younger Woman (Christina Stroup). The Observer (David Wald) acts as bartender and omniscient narrator, jumping into the quintet when needed to be "the other man" as he flirts with The Wife ("Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). This is patented Sondheim territory that was mined so spectacularly in his eye- and ear-opening Company and A Little Night Music. Bright, unhappy people, trying to revive the love that brought them together in the first flush. With few exceptions, all the numbers explore this theme, which gives this "review" a one-sided look at Sondheim's vast body of work, as if the perils of marriage is the only theme he writes about. Taken out of context from their original site-specific places, the distinctive songs begin to sound alike. The characters are generic and paper-thin; is it any wonder that what they sing doesn't quite affect us?
Take Siler, prodigiously gifted in voice and stage presence. As the rather bored and soignée Wife, she's like Joanne in Company or Phyllis in Follies, smart, sassy, but unfulfilled. The compromises these characters must live with coalesce in the show-stopping "Ladies Who Lunch" or "Could I Leave You?" These are archetypal Sondheim songs, dripping with psychological precision and scalding wit. Little playlets all themselves, they can stand alone, but not out of context. Sung with biting projection by Siler, they still make quite an impression, but they float untethered because The Wife has no mooring within the show. Later, The Wife is given "Not Getting Married Today," one of Company's most recognizable numbers, a tongue-twisting, rushing patter song for Amy, who's having a mini nervous breakdown before her wedding ceremony. In order for The Wife to sing this, she's given a bit of spotty exposition that has her reminiscing about her own wedding day so many years -earlier. Siler puts this number across with breakneck speed and finesse, but you end up wondering why her character is singing this at all. Awkward, as Sondheim says. Siler doesn't disappoint, Putting It Together lets her down.
The felicitous cast sings Sondheim like they were born to it, abetted by director Andrew Ruthven's fluid staging, which uses every level of Ovations's multi-tiered playing areas: on the staircase, behind us on the main floor or high overhead in the alcoves. Stroup belts like Merman and vamps seductively in "More" and "Sooner or Later," both from Dick Tracy. Wald is particularly smooth as a song-and-dance man in "Buddy's Blues" from Follies and the title song from Merrily We Roll Along. A veteran musical performer, Jones never seems to connect with The Husband, although the rueful "The Road You Didn't Take" from Follies is a quiet little gem. The surprise of the evening is newcomer White -- new to me, anyway -- whose clarion tenor with subtle phrasing soars in "Live Alone and Like It" from Dick Tracy and the poignant "Marry Me a Little" from Company. What a fine Bobby he would make in any future revival of Company. Anybody listening?
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Two quibbles. The sound balance is way off in the elongated Ovations, favoring musical director Luke Kirkwood's small ensemble (piano, percussion and bass) instead of the singers. If you're performing Sondheim, I want to hear each word and Jonathan Tunick's sparkling though reduced orchestrations. Everyone was wearing head mikes, but they sounded muffled and underwhelmed against the insistent band. And why does designer Ryan McGettigan use Renoir's impressionistic open-air "Le Moulin de La Galette" as backdrop instead of Georges Seurat's pointillistic open-air "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," which is the setting and raison d'être for Sondheim's iconic musical Sunday in the Park with George? Renoir has nothing to do with Sondheim.
But who could quibble with an opportunity to hear any Stephen Sondheim, in or out of context? He is Broadway's great modern master who forever changed the American musical. Where else will you hear "Bang," an overtly obvious number cut from A Little Night Music (rightfully so, when you hear it); or "My Husband's a Pig," cut from the same show for good measure; or the funny "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" from The Frogs (a small dud from 1974, a larger dud in its revised bloated 2004 version); or anything from Merrily We Roll Along; or a lilting little bauble like the forgotten "Do I Hear a Waltz" from the unproduced television musical Do You Hear a Waltz? (mistakenly titled in Main Street's playbill as Do I Hear a Waltz, which was an entirely different show, composed by Richard Rodgers with lyrics by Sondheim in 1965).
Although not the greatest compilation, Putting It Together is still Sondheim, fair to excellent. Go, pay respects!
Putting It Together Through February 1. Produced by Main Street Theater at Ovations Night Club, 2536B Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706, www.mainstreettheater.com.