Sondheim for Sondheim’s sake?

The Cast of Company
Neil Patrick Harris and the cast of Company. Image: Supplied

Once upon a time, there was a young composer named Stephen Sondheim who could not get his shows on Broadway.

As surreal as this sentence is to read some sixty years later, it’s true. Sondheim spent the majority of his twenties unsuccessfully auditioning songs for Broadway shows and living out of his father’s dining room to save money. Even after his first big hit as the lyricist of West Side Story, it was another thirteen years before he found his feet as a composer/lyricist in 1970 with Company.

Though these are all matters of public record, when discussing an icon, the wilderness years are generally easily forgettable. Not everyone can be Greta Garbo.

When Sondheim first emerged in the early 70’s as a Broadway composer of significance, he was not as kindly received as popular perception would allow. Company, a show now considered a beloved icon in its own right, was actually given largely mixed reviews on opening night. Clive Barnes, the lead Broadway Critic of the New York Times (think Ben Brantley 70’s style) actually gave it a sound roasting.

Sondheim shows, on first offing, were considered maverick endeavours. And why not? Broadway had just gone through a Golden Age. The 50’s and 60’s were rife with glorious hit shows inspiring and inspired with artistic lessons that still resonate. What a musical could be in terms of the structure of its book, the use of song, more cinematic staging and the use of choreography as narrative had been completely redefined. Legends such as Richard Rodgers, Agnes DeMille, Sheldon Harnick, Kaye Thompson and Jerry Herman had taken centre stage and the money (to quote Coco, another musical that opened in 1970) rang out like freedom! Artistic freedom that is.

In 1970, when Company debuted, the idea that this Golden Age was over hadn’t quite sunk in yet. The Broadway community was peopled with the experts on the musical grandeur of the two decades past, and they were unimpressed with Sondheim as anything more than a lyricist. Again, to quote Clive Barnes, he was seen as a “Hart in search of a Rodgers.”

A shift began to occur in the ideology of the international music theatre community somewhere in between Sunday in the Park With George (1984) and Passion (1994). By this stage, Broadway had passed by A Chorus Line and La Cage Aux Folles. The British invasion was in full swing, and American composers could no longer be depended upon as once before for a prolific line up of shows each Broadway season. And for hit shows, orchestrations and smoke machines had become far more important than clever lyrics of musical motifs. The Golden Age was over, Broadway was in financial and artistic peril, and the youngsters who had grown up clutching cherished and weatherworn LP’s of the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Anyone Can Whistle began to take front and centre in the Broadway community.

The maverick composer, who’s shows didn’t run, or make much money – if any at all – suddenly began to be publicly spoken of with incredible reverence. The cult of Sondheim exploded onto the international scene and comparisons to Shakespeare were quickly a standard when speaking of his work.

Nowadays, the musical canon of Stephen Sondheim sits unquestionably at the pinnacle of the music theatre experience. The composer can do no wrong and revisionist history commences with each and every revival as acres of pixel ink is shed describing the pedigree of shows that were once howled off stage.

Now I am an unapologetic Sondheim nut. I own multiple cast recordings of every single one of his shows, all of the DVDs, the scores, the librettos and the cover albums of the multiple Broadway legends who were there. Can you say Sondheim Etc? I can remember with incredibly clarity where I was and what I was doing when I first heard Polly Bergen sing ‘I’m Still Here’ and the likes of Judi Dench singing ‘Send in the Clowns’ or Barbra Cook wailing out ‘Move On’ will make me weep unavoidable oceans of tears. It took nigh on a decade for me to be able to view the works of Sondheim with any form of objectivity.

My question is this: when did everyone else lose theirs?

I recently went to see the cinema release of Sondheim’s Company. The show is one of my favourites – and not just of the Sondheim canon! The score is fantastic, the book is still ahead of its time and the characters are personalities vividly drawn as we rarely get to see on any stage anywhere. And with a cast including Neil Patrick Harris and Patti LuPone… well, where could it go wrong?!

I was disappointed within the first sixteen bars of the Overture.

Watching Company on screen is not new. The 2006 revival with Raul Esparza as the urbane Bobby was filmed extremely well. This new incarnation, created specifically for cinema, missed the mark as a cinematic release on every front. Produced and filmed as a staged concert version, its cinematography was clunky, stagey, grainy and badly lit. I spent the entire time wishing the production team that recently gave such a glorious DVD capture to Love Never Dies had been on hand to give them some pointers.

Worse, I had problems with the cast.

Patti LuPone, cast no doubt to sing the legendary power ballad of Upper East Side Manhattan woman-hood ‘Ladies Who Lunch’, proved herself miscast in the first scene after only two sentences. Her character, Joanne, is a Prada’d up trophy wife, dry as the martinis she drinks and as fragile as the crystal she drinks them out of. LuPone is a generous actress, and she does her best, but the tart one-liners written for a leggy-blonde, asinine Elaine Stritch just end up sounding cruel and uncomfortable.

True, LuPone raises the roof with her showstopper (bitch, please! It’s Patti LuPone!) and even manages to save the show with her final scene with Neil Patrick Harris, but the rest of the production she spends swamped in the weight of her characters own regalia.

Regalia too, is a good term. Company was an incredibly modern show for its time. As the 2006 Broadway revival pointed out, it’s an incredibly modern show for our time. Despite decades spent revising our impression of sex, sexuality, the role of the genders (are there more than two?) and all but discarding romanticism as a perspective alive anywhere outside of rom-coms, Company exposes with aching clarity humanity’s imperative desire for intimacy.

This filmed version clad the entire thing in the period of its birth. Christina Hendricks damn near stole the show as the Nicole Kidman-esque dumb blonde April – all the while be-suited in a face-slappingly unnecessary 70’s flight attendants uniform complete with neckerchief and matching purse and pill-box hat.

The rest of the cast swanned around in 70’s style hair, loud chequered pants and stripey woollen vests. Further, the score, one of the first to be arranged to involve electric guitars in the 70’s, was orchestrated to match a period of Broadway instead. The vast orchestra brassed itself up and the whole thing waltzed off sounding like a Jerry Herman tribute concert.

Neil Patrick Harris is an actor I genuinely like. He’s funny and tart and quite intelligent. To this end he helped me to finally understand the point of the power ballad ‘Being Alive’. Generally actors (and actresses) perform the song like a stand-alone showstopper. They begin soft and low and then belt their lungs out to the climax. Neil Patrick Harris takes it as the answer to his characters questions throughout the show, and in doing so he actually saves the production. Company is not just a series of vignettes surrounded by song, but a series of challenges or questions posed to its lead that lead to his gently perceptible development throughout the show.
Though he missed the point with ‘Marry Me a Little’, NPH (with some subtle help from Patti LuPone) takes the episodes of the musical as bait and argues against the first two verse of ‘Being Alive’ with anger and bitterness at the concept of marriage. But with gentle persuasion from the rest of the cast he eventually breaks and allows the song to take flight as an argument not exactly for marriage, but certainly against loneliness. And while he can’t belt like Patti LuPone (bitch, please! It’s Patti LuPone!) he still delivers and the show is saved.

The efforts of the cast, successful and otherwise, only go to highlight just what was so disturbing about this filmed version of Company as a venture. It reeked of reverence.

And what’s wrong with that exactly? A great show by a great composer should be venerated – right?

Ruthie Henshall Losing My Mind
Ruthie Henshall sings Losing My Mind at Side By Side By Sondheim. Image by Blueprint Studios

And yet, somewhere on the face of the earth right now it can be guaranteed that a class of students is being force fed a Shakespeare play and are vehemently wishing that they could set fire to something.

Comparisons of Sondheim and Shakespeare are all very well. They are both gifted writers whose works lend poetry, character and heart to their stories. They are also remarkably intelligent and can be extremely confronting and complex in their style of delivery. Bad Shakespeare is not uncommon as modern productions run the gamut attempting to reinterpret and reinvent the words of the Bard and cast upon them a modern context.

And as actors glory in the lyricism of the language, it is achingly easy for the passion behind the words to vanish. The Letter Scene in Macbeth is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen, and yet, done badly it can (and does) send me to sleep.

It is a horrifying thought that Sondheim’s works look to be heading in the same direction. Fire replaced with fandom and passion replaced with star casting. It seems almost inevitable that Sondheim will exist in classrooms twenty years hence to bore students used to observing renditions of songs, that (now) ignite my bloodstream, that would make small mammals bury their heads in the sand.

The cure for this is objectivity. Sondheim is eighty-two, and we are full and thick at present with revivals and celebrations of his work. Sweeney Todd is on film, Into the Woods (allegedly) is next and Follies with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin is still being discussed. Broadway and West End revivals of the canon continue thick and fast (with Sweeney Todd being redefined and Merrily We Roll Along rewritten again (!) in London this year). It strikes me that we need to calm down a little bit. Too much of this has become Sondheim for Sondheim’s sake, and artistically, cracks are beginning to show.

As with Shakespeare, performers love being in a Sondheim show. How could they not? And yet, it needs to be remembered that the attention to detail required to successfully create his characters, and his songs and to bring them to life is exhausting! By all accounts, the 1970 production of Company (directed by Hal Prince and choreographed by Michael Bennett) was an awe inspiring, exhaustive thing. They would have done well to remember that before the cinematic capture was made in 2012.

For the sake of future generations I can only beg that artists and audiences alike save Sondheim from becoming the ponderous white elephant that mediocre productions will inspire. For where Sondheim shows are concerned, there is no room for mediocrity. Demand more from yourselves and demand more from your musicals.

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