STEVE – AS IN SONDHEIM? by Peter Filichia
By Peter Filichia
If the play version of The Graduate could get an album, why shouldn’t Steve?
The Graduate used snippets of ‘60s music during scene changes, so Columbia Legacy execs decided to issue an album of each song in its entirety. The fifteen tracks ranged from an easy listening waltz (“Moon River”) to a novelty song (“Love Potion No. 9”) and of course included “Mrs. Robinson” and “The Sound of Silence.”
Steve, Mark Gerrard’s pungent new play at the (let’s take a big breath first) Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center (whew!) rarely uses recorded music. But many of the characters make many references to specific lines of musical theater songs; thus, a collection of the wonderful songs cited is in order.
Minutes into the show two phrases caught my ear. Steven (Matt McGrath), sitting with friends in a restaurant where his birthday will be celebrated, mentioned taking “a class in optical art” shortly before ordering “a vodka stinger” – and shortly before an “I’ll drink to that!” Hmmm, those three lines are from Company’s “The Ladies Who Lunch.” So a nice companion album to Steve would feature Elaine Stritch’s signature song as Track One.
It’d be quite an album, partly because it would certainly feature a great deal of Sondheim. And why shouldn’t a play called Steve with no fewer than two on-stage Steves, one off-stage Steve and even a waiter named Esteban (as in Rio Nido) celebrate Sondheim?
When Steven starts a story with “Once upon a time,” Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson), Steve’s lesbian friend, blurts out “I wish!” – reminding us of Into the Woods. That 1987-88 Best Score Tony-winner’s Prologue would make a fine Track Two.
Carrie mentions “Every day a little death,” citing the song in A Little Night Music that got Patricia Elliott her 1972-73 Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical. There’s Track Three! (I love the line when Carrie cites one too many lines and Steve snarls “You quote Sondheim like a man!”)
Another Into the Woods cut — “I Know Things Now,” Little Red Ridinghood’s big number — would be an ideal Track Four. It’s cited by Matt when discussing the possibility of a threesome; he quotes the lass when he says he’s “excited and scared.” Have you noticed, by the way, that over the last quarter-century that this has become an idiom? In fact, people said it quite a bit last December when they entered their local multiplexes full of misgivings on how the film version of Into the Woods would be.
We have another Sondheim “lyric” if we assume that he inserted the word “Mambo!” into West Side Story’s “Dance at the Gym.” Esteban and Steven gaily do it to Leonard Bernstein’s music, which is always welcome (especially from this score); thus, here’s our Track Five.
Steven recalls his youth and his “one-boy version of Pacific Overtures.” Lest we doubt that he really did it, he proves it by quoting a few lines from “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea.” Track Six! It’ll remind us that Pacific Overtures is truly a sui generis musical – meaning that there’s not another one like it.
All right, these people can’t solely quote Sondheim; there are other musicals, you know. Mame’s “It’s Today” surfaces when Matt (Mario Cantone) applies it to Steven’s birthday. Steven is not to be confused with Stephen (Malcolm Gets), who’s his lover. And “It’s Today” from the original cast album will never be confused with the cut on the woebegone soundtrack. In fact, Steven asks out loud “What kind of god would allow that movie of Mame?” Good question – and while the soundtrack is available you’d be very wise to eschew it and its panned star in favor of the recording with Tony-winner Angela Lansbury. Let’s make “It’s Today” our Track Seven.
Alas, Steven and Stephen are having problems with their son. “What’s the matter with kids today?” Steven moans, citing a line from Bye Bye Birdie’s “Kids!” We could, of course, include the song as is, but I’ve always been more amused by its reprise, and would opt for that as our Track Eight. Little Johnny Borden, playing Kim McAfee’s kid brother Randolph, sings “What’s the matter with kids to — ” but is interrupted because he simply doesn’t have the voice to hit the highest note of all. So the rest of the cast saved him by stepping in.
A casual mention of “You’re the Top” causes Esteban to wonder about Steven’s preferred sexual position. The question is never answered, but it does bring up a question for what we’d want as Track Nine: “You’re the Top” from the 1962 off-Broadway revival of Anything Goes (with future Tony-winner Hal Linden) or from the 1987 Broadway revival (with already Tony-winner Patti LuPone)? They’re both terrific.
Carrie sings Kiss Me, Kate’s “Tom, Dick or Harry” with a decided emphasis on the middle name. Well, the very closeted Cole Porter probably had that in mind, given that he ended the song by repeating the name quite a bit. (I’m a little tired; you do the counting and see how many times he used it. Get thee to the original cast album where Lisa Kirk, Harold Lang and Edwin Clay will now and forever have a joyous time with it.) Track Ten!
Matt says in jealous awe that he knows someone who actually saw Barbra Streisand in I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Well, those days are long-gone, but we still have the cast album that features “Miss Marmelstein,” the hilarious self-pitying number that set Streisand on the road to (short) Broadway stardom. Track Eleven.
Twyla Tharp is referenced several times, so let’s include as Track Twelve a selection from her Billy Joel dance hit Movin’ Out. (By the way, you’re a true Broadway baby if you own no Billy Joel recordings but you do possess the cast album of Movin’ Out.)
In a show about gay couples and gay affairs, “Mein Herr” has no heterosexual context. For our Track Thirteen we’ll have to settle for a woman singing it. But at least it’s Tony-winner Natasha Richardson on the 1998 revival cast album of Cabaret. Be apprised, however, that if your taste runs only to original cast albums, the 1966 Cabaret, wondrous as it is, doesn’t offer this song; it was written for the 1972 film version.
There’s more gender-bending when we learn that Steven and Carrie once performed “Poor Jud is Daid” — with Carrie playing Jud. As our Track Fourteen, we can offer a more traditional rendition from the much-acclaimed 1979 revival of Oklahoma! with Laurence Guittard as the mean-spirited Curly and Martin Vidnovic as the unfortunate Jud.
When Steven says he’s a receptionist who wears a headphone, he’s told he’s being “Very Judy Holliday.” That’s a reference to Holliday’s Tony-winning role as telephone answering service representative Ella Peterson, who, near the end of Bells Are Ringing, decides “I’m Goin’ Back” to her previous place of employment. It’s one of the best eleven o’clock numbers of all time, and it will make a joyous Track Fifteen.
I’m not going to spoil the curtain call for you – for you really should see this most delightful play – but suffice it to say the cast comes out and, for the show’s penultimate number, does a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. If you really want to know, all you have to do is give it a little thought and you’ll figure it out. (You’re bright people, as is proven from your collecting cast albums.) It’ll make a terrific Track Sixteen.
Going onto Seventeen, we have Matt singing an all-stops-out “All That Jazz,” which you can have either from Chita Rivera’s original or Bebe Neuwirth’s revival. “Oh, I love my life” goes my favorite lyric of the song, and one I hope we all say from time to time.
But this album would be, to borrow the title of a 2002 Barbara Cook one-woman show, mostly Sondheim. And yet, with all the talk of life starting out as “a blank canvas,” why wasn’t that parlayed into a reference to Sunday in the Park with George? Wait (as Mrs. Lovett sings in Sweeney Todd – a musical that’s strangely never mentioned in Steve)! Let Sunday’s title song serve as our CD’s bonus track. And in case you don’t care to wait for Masterworks Broadway to make this disc, well, you can certainly download all of the above and make your own. Steven, Stephen, Esteban, Matt and Carrie would like that.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.