Monday, May 31, 2010

So many people in the world don't know what they've missed

The program for Sondheim on Sondheim, a revue now playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54, includes a "musical chronology" listing all of Stephen Sondheim's shows and the songs from each that the audience is about to hear. As she waited for the show to begin, the woman behind me perused this list. "Wait a minute," she said to her companion, "It says here 'Children Will Listen' is from Into the Woods. Is that right? Because it's also in Ragtime."

If reading that caused you to snort derisively, then you, like me, are probably an insufferable musical-theatre geek and/or snob. If you didn't react that way (and are wondering what the joke is), you must belong to the vast majority of humankind that isn't entirely sure who Stephen Sondheim is, or why you should care. There are two kinds of people in the world, in other words. Some of us are keenly aware that Mr. Stephen Sondheim celebrated his eightieth birthday this year and have been wondering whether we personally are doing enough to mark the occasion. And the rest of you are more like the woman behind me, who at intermission turned to her friend and said, "So, I guess this Stephen Sondheim must still be alive."

Sondheim on Sondheim tries, quixotically, to satisfy both groups at once.

For further contrast, here's what I thought as I paged through my Playbill before the show: "Why didn't I know Norm Lewis was in this?"

The fact that the show is being billed as "Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, and Barbara Cook in..." had already made me wary (as you know). I'd seen Williams and Wopat in other musicals, and I don't mean to knock them -- they're both very gifted. But neither would show up on my wish list of interpreters of Sondheim. Barbara Cook, on the other hand, would be very near the top of that list -- but I wasn't sure what to make of her presence in this trio (and remember her Mostly Sondheim concert? Been there, bought the CDs). So I was already uncertain about who, exactly, this show was designed for. And then I looked at my program and was surprised to discover that there were more than three people in the cast -- and that two of those other people had what I consider to be pretty famous names. If you're putting together a revue of Sondheim songs, how do you not advertise that Norm Lewis is in the cast? And how does Euan Morton not get a mention? The answer, I guessed, is that the Roundabout had already bet on ticket-buyers' being excited about the as-seen-on-TV Williams-Wopat pairing, and anyone who sees those names under "Sondheim" and thinks "By golly, I'll buy a ticket to that!" is not going to know who Norm Lewis is.

A lot of this show is corny, and there are several ill-advised medleys and unsuccessful forays into seriousness ("The Gun Song" after "Something Just Broke"? That's...odd). That part of my report probably won't surprise my fellow Sondheim snobs. What is surprising is that there are also moments of wit and brilliance aimed squarely at the geeks in the audience, and enough to send me out of the theatre (after two hours and forty-five minutes!) grinning happily. The show, then, is rather schizophrenic, and it's that way from the beginning. The opening number brings the cast onstage (eight people in all) for a truly embarrassing medley of some greatest hits: "Phone rings, door chimes, in comes compannnnnyyyyyy... Merrily we roll along, roll along, following dreams... Into the woods without delay but careful not to lose the waaaaaaaay..." You get the picture. It was like Sondheim Night on The Lawrence Welk Show. But just when I was making plans to leave at intermission, Barbara Cook made her entrance. A quarter of the audience applauded wildly. And she sang: "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit, and it's filled with people who are filled with shit..."

That was the moment when I thought, Hey, this might not be so bad after all. It was the first of many such moments, which alternated with the times I felt bad for the performers onstage. Tom Wopat, for example. He's a genial and capable performer with the right kind of material; he held his own against Barbara Cook when they sang "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" (as a hammy duet -- again, like something from a TV variety show), and he was just the guy for the role of the producer in "Opening Doors." But he doesn't have the chops to pull off "Epiphany" -- I'm not sure anyone would, starting cold, when the context is what makes the number so strong. But Tom Wopat will never make a good Sweeney Todd, and his "Epiphany" is not much less inappropriate than Barbara Cook's. The difference is that his isn't supposed to be a punch line. So it's a very odd moment: How can James Lapine (who "directed and conceived" this project) know that having Barbara Cook sing a snatch from Sweeney would be hilarious, but not recognize what a bad idea it would be to have Wopat attempt it seriously?

Everyone around me seemed to be enjoying the show, if not for the same reasons. Toward the end of intermission, one of the women behind me asked the other if she had learned from consulting her program "who Barbara Cook is." The woman with the program was vague: "Oh, I think she's been in a lot of TV shows." She was bluffing. (I checked the bio to confirm what I suspected -- not a word in it about television.) The truth, apparently, was that none of the credits listed in Cook's bio meant anything to her, or gave her a clue why audience members like me were responding with such adulation. She could tell some people really loved Cook, and she'd picked up on a few jokes aimed at the Barbara-worshipers in the audience, but she was an outsider to the world of theatre geekery, and she couldn't tell for herself that Cook is one of the all-time greats. And I don't blame her; the venue and performer were an odd match. I remember finding Cook mesmerizing when she sang "In Buddy's Eyes" in concert several years ago, but in this show it was oddly unaffecting.

If you are a Sondheim fan, you'll be entertained -- by the inside jokes, and by the video clips of interviews with the man himself, explaining how he came to write certain songs or telling stories from his life. And the song list is pleasingly varied. There are even some experiments that pay off -- although Passion is overrepresented, the farcical treatment of "Happiness" was so unexpected and silly that I had to laugh.

If you're not a Sondheim fan, you will also be entertained -- the stories he tells are interesting (and affecting) no matter how much you know about his work, and the music is enjoyable enough. If Vanessa Williams sings "Good Thing Going" like it's the B-side to "Save the Best for Last," well, there are worse ways to pass the time. The pity is that there are better ways, too, and the show doesn't even hint at them. It's entertaining, amusing, educational, but it's never revelatory, and that's the one thing any Sondheim retrospective ought to be. Entertaining, amusing, pleasant -- that would be enough if this were a Kander & Ebb revue. But Sondheim's reputation for greatness rests on his songs being something more than pleasant and fun, or even carefully structured. At their best, they are great theater, and there are few hints of that in Sondheim on Sondheim. Devotees will know it's missing and thus find the show unsatisfying. And the uninitiated (like the people behind me) will still be uninitiated when they leave. They'll know that Sondheim is "great" -- there's a whole weird song about it at the beginning of the second act. But they won't be much closer to knowing why.

Here's a revelation you can take to the bank (and the whole audience would agree): Leslie Kritzer is wonderful and worth seeing in whatever she goes on to do. And I'll leave you with one more sorry-grateful moment (a spoiler, so stop reading if you plan to see the show). The first-act finale is one of the great moments of the 2009-2010 Broadway season. Stephen Sondheim has just observed that -- for reasons he cannot explain -- "Send in the Clowns" became a smash hit and his best-known, most-performed song. The obvious, uncreative thing to do at that moment is have somebody come out and sing "Send in the Clowns." You know most of the audience wants to hear it (especially since it's probably the only Sondheim song they know). And yet, it's so overdone and obvious. And they could at this very moment buy a ticket to hear Catherine Zeta-Jones sing it just blocks away. Lapine's solution to this problem is ironic, witty, and brilliant: a video montage of "Send in the Clowns" performed by artists from Elizabeth Taylor (in the film of A Little Night Music) to an awkward, passionate teen (in her bedroom, performing for the masses on YouTube). The creativity of that salute to (and wry commentary on) the popularity of "Send in the Clowns" won me over. And then the spell was broken when, in the second act, Vanessa Williams Barbara Cook [a commenter corrects my memory] came out to sing "Send in the Clowns." Sigh: Don't bother, they're here.

[Photo © 2010 Richard Termine]


P Goyan said...

Until Vanessa Williams came out to sing "Send in the Clowns" in the 2nd Act?

What was Mollie smoking at intermission? Did I miss something in the media? Did Barbara Cook hand the song over to Ms Williams?

Mollie said...

Ah, was it Barbara Cook? Shows how much of an impression it made on me! (I saw the show during previews, so my memory of its less memorable moments is a little foggy.)