Did you miss A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair? It was the Stephen Sondheim-Wynton Marsalis revue that played City Center a few weeks ago.
That’s all right. Not being able to make it may have been a blessing in disguise. The show was somewhere between a noble failure and a dud.
The biggest problem was that Marsalis seemed less interested in serving and complementing Sondheim’s music and more interested in emerging triumphant over it. There were plenty of show-offy arrangements that overwhelmed the singers. They called attention to the accompaniment which prevented us from listening to the songs themselves.
The program started with the overture from Merrily We Roll Along – which most musical theater enthusiasts agree is the Last Great Overture. How sad that thirty-two years have passed without a better one!
To be fair, one reason that we haven’t heard as great an overture since the autumn of 1981 is that many shows dispense with these musical medleys. Another reason is that the sizes of orchestras have steadily shrunk over the decades, so when a show does have an overture, it often sounds undernourished from a lack of instruments. (The new 2012 recording of Annie is a good case in point).
That was even true at City Center, where fifteen pieces had to make do on the overture that originally had twenty-one in the pit at the Alvin (now Neil Simon) where Merrily played. But shaving the orchestra by a third wasn’t the only sin. How shrill these musicians were! How hesitant they were with the music! You’d swear they were sight-reading for the first time. No, you’re much better off getting the show’s stunning original cast album (still the best of the four cast albums this sixteen-performance show has received); here the overture even sounds better because six more musicians came in the day of the recording to make it sound even more potent.
Director John Doyle, along with choreographer Parker Esse as well as writers Peter Gethers and Jack Viertel, conceived A Bed and a Chair with a good deal of dance, too. While Bernadette Peters and Norm Lewis played “Older Woman” and “Older Man,” Elizabeth Parkinson and Grasan Kingsberry mirrored them as “Older Woman’s Shadow” and “Older Man’s Shadow.” Similarly, Cyrille Aimée and Jeremy Jordan portrayed “Younger Woman” and “Younger Man,” Elizabeth Parkinson and Grasan Kingsberry became “Younger Woman’s Shadow” and “Younger Man’s Shadow.”
Fine – but because so much of the evening was dance, a song from that decidedly non-Sondheimian musical Annie came to mind: “Something Was Missing.”
And as great a composer as Sondheim long ago proved himself to be, you do want to hear the magnificent words that accompany the music.
All right, the decision to do “Send in the Clowns” without a single word was probably made because the creators felt that everyone in attendance would know every syllable. True enough, considering that the song recently entered its fifth decade of existence; for close to forty years, it’s been a song that much of the nation can sing word-for-word.
And yet, when I hear any instrumental rendition (and Lord knows there have been hundreds), what pops into my head are the far less famous lyrics that Fredrik and Desirée sing during the show’s finale on A Little Night Music’s cast album. “Me as a merry-go-round,” she rues of her peripatetic (and sometimes pathetic) existence; “Me as King Lear,” he admits, acknowledging that he’s not a kid anymore. And, oh, when the music swells up in that way that the best Broadway musicals do – well, to cite one of Fred Astaire’s greatest hits, “Heaven, I’m in heaven.” I suspect that you’d be, too. When was the last time you listened to the finale? Or have you yet?
“It Would Have Been Wonderful” — which also comes from A Little Night Music, of course — also got the lyric-less treatment. The first two A-sections of the song are almost delicious and clever patter, so the melody that remained seemed a little weaker without the trenchant lyrics. (“If she’d only been faded; if she’d only been fat.”) That deficiency was happily rectified when the B-section came in; it’s so gorgeous that we could part with the lyrics.
Or maybe not. Because the words that start the section include the word “perfection” (“But the woman was perfection”), it needs a perfect melody. And that’s precisely what Sondheim gave it.
Five songs came from Company. People have been complaining that this trailblazing 1970 musical has become dated in the forty-three years since audiences had first seen it. Well, how could it not? Time passes, and expecting that anything won’t age is awfully naïve. Forty-three years ago, there were still cigarette ads on TV, 8-track tapes, Earth shoes, mopeds and streakers; they’re all gone, but Company is, to quote a song from Sondheim’s next masterpiece, still here.
Up until seeing A Bed and a Chair, the only aspect of Company that I truly found dated was Amy’s talk about having a male roommate as if it’s the most bizarre thing in the world. It was a pretty new and radical notion then, but in the ensuing years, literally millions of men and women have cohabitated in peaceful co-existence. (Or let’s put it this way: they probably haven’t argued any more or less than same-sex roommates have.)
Okay, “Sazerac Slings” sounds a little dated, too. But while listening to “Someone Is Waiting,” I found two other words that sounded dated: the names “Susan” for a twenty-something and “Joanne” for a woman in her mid-forties. Not too many women in those age groups have those names anymore. Today Susan would be Jessica, Ashley or Amanda, and Joanne would be Lisa, Michelle or Kimberly.
One could say that Company is dated in that in 1970 it pulled its final punch, one that A Bed and a Chair proved that we can now accept. Take it from someone who saw the first performance of Company at the Shubert in Boston, when Dean Jones sang that marriage was tantamount of living “Happily Ever After” in hell. Oh, how the audience recoiled! Ah, but when Peters and Lewis duetted and expressed those same feelings in “Happily Ever After,” many in the audience were seen nodding in agreement. Many who were alive when Company debuted may have now through experience come to believe the sentiments of that song more than the one that replaced it: “Being Alive.”
(If you’ve never heard “Happily Ever After,” there’s a bit of it on Sondheim: A Musical Tribute and all of it on Marry Me a Little. The bouncy, quasi-Bacharach melody is worth hearing along with the lyric.)
Cyrille Aimée did well by “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” as a solo. But the song was originally conceived as a trio, and losing two-thirds of the harmony and that Andrews Sisters feel made this once-hot number seem a bit lukewarm. Give me Donna McKechnie, Pamela Myers and Susan Browning every time.
Yes, we can appreciate that the creators wanted to do something different with most every song, but that doesn’t mean that they were always able to eclipse the original renditions. For example, showing slides of imposing Manhattan office towers just before Jordan sang “There are giants in the sky” got a smile out of me. Good idea! A kid who’s just arrived in town might very well feel overwhelmed by the skyscrapers. So the lyric “Just how small you are” works, too. So does “You’re free to do whatever pleases you,” which is more true of New York than most other places.
But what does “a big tall terrible lady giant sweeping the floor” mean in a contemporary Manhattan context? This can’t be a commentary on how cleaning women have grown in height over the years. The creators would have done better to keep it in Into the Woods where it belongs (and – apologies to Jordan — where Ben Wright delivered what is still the quintessential rendition).
The show gave a sex-change to many a song. Jordan – a recent asset to Newsies and a more recent liability to Smash, in case you can’t place him — sang “Another Hundred People.” That he sang it as a young person who’d just discovered New York was certainly supportable. And yet, Pamela Myers on the original cast album has the sound of someone who’s been here and has learned from experience – not necessarily bitter experience, but experience.
These evenings do illuminate in some ways. We see the difference between the 1954 Sondheim, then writing about Brooklyn’s youth in Saturday Night, and the 1971 Sondheim, commenting on middle-aged jaded New Yorkers (and Phoenicians) in Follies. Note in “What More Do I Need?” (from the earlier show) that the young female character proclaims “You said you love me” and accepts that without question. But in “Losing My Mind” (from the latter show), the older-and-somewhat-wiser female character sings “You said you loved me” – note the past tense – before questioning it with that devastating line, “Or were you just being kind?”
But in my case, I guess we can call this “another chance to disapprove.” And while Peters did a sensational rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” here, why was it Elaine Stritch’s voice that I was hearing throughout?