Remember that great theatrical in-joke in DEATHTRAP?
Sidney Bruhl, jealous of the terrific thriller that his student has written, tells his wife that it’s so good that “even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it.”
Yes, some directors do believe that they can improve on what the writer(s) wrote. Ever hear about the production of SOUTH PACIFIC that was set in a hospital where emotionally disturbed war veterans did the show? It really happened.
And yet, every now and then, a director conceives of a concept that does improve on the original – just as Kirk Jameson at the Barn Theatre, two hours northwest of London, did with MARRY ME A LITTLE.
It is and it isn’t a Sondheim musical. Certainly every note and word comes from The Great Man himself. But Sondheim didn’t have the idea for it; in 1980, Craig Lucas and Norman René bit by bit put it together, mostly choosing songs that had been cut from ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, COMPANY, FOLLIES and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC.
It makes for a marvelous cast album, with Lucas playing “Man” while Suzanne Henry portrays “Woman.” Although they were in the same apartment, they didn’t acknowledge each other. Eventually theatergoers caught on that these two lost souls weren’t in the same room at all, but in their own spaces, utterly alone and disconnected.
Jameson’s masterstroke that eluded Lucas and Rene was to give the couple a backstory and romantic history: Boy-Met-Girl, Boy-Met-Girl’s-Expectations, Boy-and-Girl-Aren’t-Meeting-Anymore. Pre-show slides showed Rob Houchen and Celinde Schoenmaker in happier times before the two performers came on stage and went to their separate apartments (a smart change from the original) where they’d live separate lives.
Drama is conflict, and these two are conflicted, unlike Man and Woman in the original who just told their unconnected observations.
Jameson’s concept sounded so intriguing that I felt compelled to imagine what he did. So I revisited my original cast album.
Given that Man and Woman are ex-lovers, their opening song that asked “What can you do on a Saturday night alone?” took on an added poignancy. Before the break-up, they must have been together many a lovely Saturday night.
They won’t have any additional ones. Being lonely in New York is one thing but quite another when you thought you were in love and it didn’t work out. Did Man and Woman start thinking that they might have made a mistake in splitting? This production must have made the song suggest so.
And what if the two didn’t honor the commandment oft heard in the New York: Thou Shalt Not Date Someone in Your Building. If the romance doesn’t work out, you’ll too many times walk into your lobby, see your ex there, wait for the elevator in cold silence and then ride up in colder silence.
Man reminisced about bringing Woman flowers that were “All Things Bright and Beautiful” while fully admitting that seduction was on his mind in (you should pardon the expression) “Bang!”
When Woman sang “Can That Boy Foxtrot!” now the lyric “Who knows what I saw in him?” must have had extra punch. Then, when she noted that the “Girls of Summer” occasionally “get burned,” she wouldn’t only mean women who failed to bring sunscreen to the beach. Although Woman claimed she wasn’t one of these burnouts, I could believe that this lady was protesting too much.
Then came Man’s opportunity to tell his side of the story in “Uptown/Downtown.” He felt that Woman could seem like two different people: one oh-so-grand, one down to earth. That could drive a person crazy.
Yet my sympathies returned to Woman in “So Many People.” She mourned that “I had to go and fall for so much less than what I’d planned.” And yet, she noted that people will “never know love like my love for you” – present tense – which implied that Man broke it off.
That was just before Man recalled that “Your Eyes Are Blue.” I assumed that although he wanted to forget details about Woman, in his mind’s eye he still saw her face. That’s undoubtedly why he reminisced about “A Moment with You.” The fact that Woman joined him in song suggested that she was thinking the same thing at the same time, which made me feel they were meant to be together.
Ah, that ol’ bugaboo marriage was the barrier. Woman stated in the show’s title song that she was “ready now” but Man apparently wasn’t. He insisted that marriage would mean living “Happily Ever After” – in hell. (The song’s 9/8-time signature alone told me how upset he was.)
More pleasant memories came flooding back in “Pour Le Sport,” about two city duffers on the golf course. Jameson’s idea probably was that Man and Woman remembered their fun time on the links. Maybe they even played miniature golf, which always makes for a quirky fun date.
Man’s singing of “Silly People” – meaning others and not himself – dovetailed nicely with Woman’s earlier and very similar observation in “Girls of Summer”: my Significant Other made the mistakes, not I. That both have the same myopia suggested that they’d agree on other matters, too. By now, I was feeling one of them should call the other and swallow some pride and not wait until it’s fully digested.
But then the pulsating tempo of “There Won’t Be Trumpets” indicated that Woman was looking forward to her next relationship. “He may not be,” she admits, “tall and graceful, fair and strong” but she concedes that that “doesn’t matter just as long as he comes along.” Just as Flora the Red Menace learned from the first great Kander and Ebb song that career success can be “A Quiet Thing,” Woman now knew that trumpets wouldn’t necessarily blare when Mr. Right came right along.
So Man and Woman eventually came to the conclusion at which so many broken (and broken-up) couples have arrived: “It Wasn’t Meant to Happen.” But wait! Haven’t you ever been in a relationship that you were absolutely-positively 100% sure was over and then saw it resume before the week was out? Perhaps Man and Woman quickly reconciled after all, for suddenly the last two songs had Man asking “Who Could Be Blue?” with Woman planning their life in a “Little White House.” And a happy ending? Of course!
By the way, just because the majority of these songs were cut from their shows doesn’t mean that they stink. On the contrary, “Uptown/Downtown” has one of the most astounding lyrics in the entire musical theater canon: “She sits at the Ritz with her splits of Mumms,” it starts, and I’ll stop there, lest I deny you the amazement you’ll feel on hearing it. But I will say that there are three rhymes in the first eight words, two different sets of rhymes in the next fourteen words, six rhymes that match the first three in the remaining words – and a clear demarcation of the two sides of the character. And by the way, in FINISHING THE HAT, Sondheim says he “batted out” the lyric, which should make any Broadway wordsmith feel quite inadequate.
So why was such a masterpiece dropped? As Sondheim explained, co-director “Michael Bennett wanted something more up-tempo and rhythmically charged.” Sondheim, who’d had more than a decade’s experience than Bennett and twice as many hits as this newer kid on the block, could have pulled rank. Many who have written far less worthy lyrics would have utterly refused this upstart. But Sondheim instead returned to his Boston hotel room and wrote “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” How’s that for collaboration?
Listening to the album for the first time in a while reminded what a lovely recording this is. Lucas has a fine voice for a performer who turned out to be an even finer writer: PRELUDE TO A KISS, RECKLESS, THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA. Suzanne Henry has an even better voice and if life were fair (hah!) she would have had a solid career. We can only hope that Rob Houchen and Celinde Schoenmaker sang MARRY ME A LITTLE nearly as well.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.