Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sondheim on Sondheim: The Revue of a Lifetime

Disappointing SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at Hanna Theatre

In the self-revealing probe of his life, principles, writing philosophy and revelations about musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim, in both of his recently published books, FINISHING THE HAT and LOOK, I MADE A HAT explains that “content dictates form,” “less is more,” and that “theater lyrics are not written to be read but to be sung.” He illustrates how a writer’s philosophy, life experiences and beliefs are revealed in what he writes about and the way in which he expresses his ideas.

Stephen Sondheim, with few exceptions, writes musical dramas. He usually takes on serious subjects—the inability to make commitment (COMPANY), revenge (SWEENEY TODD THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET), false illusions (FOLLIES), world issues (PACIFIC OVERTURES), haunted souls (SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE), misguided motivations (ASSASINS).

What’s surprising about Sondheim’s approach is that he was a protégé of Oscar Hammerstein II, who was among the kings of musical theatre. His productions often had an undercurrent of comedy, while stressing homey community centered themes, with a philosophical message. These are not Sondheim's techniques.

Early in life, following the divorce of his parents, and his mother’s realization that she did not want to be a parent, Stephen was turned over to Hammersteins, who were family friends, for tutelage. Hammerstein, according to Sondheim, taught him most of what he knows about music and musical theatre.

With this background in mind, I went to see the co-produced PlayhouseSquare and Great Lakes Theatre, SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM THE REVIEW OF A LIFETIME, with great anticipation. It would make the written words of the Sondheim books live….make the lyrics soar, make the story vivid by hearing the great man in his own words, supported by a professional cast of singers and dancers.

In general, what a disappointment. Yes, Sondheim was there. But, instead of the chronological development of his books, the ideas jumped around with no organizational format, sometimes repeating themselves. The staging lacked the dynamic quality of Sondheim’s ideas. The singing was mediocre. The vocal blendings were sometimes off. The orchestra often drowned out the words to the songs…words that we must be able to clearly hear. The choreography was often flat. The cast sometimes looked like they were walking through their numbers with little joy or pizzazz. They often sang words, not meanings. Articulation was sometimes mushy. Hopefully I saw the show on an off-night and during the rest of the run some of these issues don’t rear their ugly heads.

There were some high points, beyond hearing Sondheim explain himself and his works. Production numbers such as A Weekend in the Country, The Best Things That Ever Happened, and Losing My Mind were successful. The humor highlight was a YouTube compilation of various people, from the famous (Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Liz Taylor) to unknowns, doing their renditions of Send in the Clowns. The setting, a series of white levels, lent itself well to the free flowing staging. A number of gold frames were effectively used to place visual borders around the action and to create a screen for the Sondheim video clips.

But these were balanced off by the indistinguishable lyrics in Getting Married Today, the questionable interpretation of Happiness, and the less than funny, usually hysterical, Comedy Tonight.

How could this be? Thirteen months was spent putting the script together and getting permissions to produce the piece. It incorporated the work of James Lapine, long time Sondheim collaborator. There were all the hours of Sondheim interview tapes. Over 1200 performers were auditioned in Cleveland and New York. Victoria Bussert, the reigning local queen of musical theatre directors and a nationally recognized theatrical wizard staged the show. Matthew Webb, an accomplished musical director was on staff. Gregory Daniels, who has a proven record as a choreographer, planned the dancing.

As a friend who I spoke to following the show stated, “I was bored and frustrated with the level of performances and lack of focus.” Whatever the reason for the derailment, it led to a less than standout evening of theatre.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, in its regional premiere, was a major disappointment. I wanted so much to be involved, to be excited, to gain a further appreciation of the “amplifications, dogmas, harangues, anecdotes and miscellany” that makes Sondheim Sondheim.