More content coming soon for Everything Sondheim, but for now – need a last minute Valentine’s Day card? Let Sondheim woo your love with these e-cards below and then let us know your favorite Sondheim love lyrics in the comments.
There was a significant buzz around the New York City Center’s Gala in October 2016 when movie star Jake Gyllenhaal took on the leading role of Georges Seurat in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George. He had performed as Seymour for City Center’s Encores! presentation of Little Shop of Horrors in July 2015, so it was evident he could sing. He’s well known for his expressive, charismatic acting; he was nominated for a 2005 Academy Award for his sensitive performance as Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain and garnered much acclaim playing creepy videographer Louis Bloom in 2014’s Nightcrawler. But could he handle the vocal demands of the musical’s portrait of pointillist painter Georges Seurat, so long identified with its originator, Mandy Patinkin?
Reviews were extremely positive, and the demand for tickets for the brief presentation, staged by Sara Lapine (James Lapine’s niece), demonstrated an appetite for a longer run. A 10-week limited engagement was set for Feb. 23-April 23, 2017. After 11 previews, the minimally staged production had 61 performances at Broadway’s recently renovated 970-seat Hudson Theatre, recouping its investment a few days before closing. Many of the City Center cast members were in the 23-actor ensemble at the Hudson, including Tony Award winner Annaleigh Ashford as George’s muse Dot and his grandmother Marie in Act II.
Two more Tony winners Robert Sean Leonard (as Jules/Bob) and Ruthie Ann Miles (as Frieda/Betty), were joined by several others with Tony nominations on their résumés: Brooks Ashmanskas, Phillip Boykin and Penny Fuller. Music director Chris Fenwick continued to serve as conductor, using Michael Starobin’s original orchestrations, expanded slightly from the nine players at City Center to 11.
The limited run at the Hudson was extremely successful, but it came and went quickly. Now there’s good news. Immediately after closing, the cast headed into a New York studio to record the show on April 25-26, 2017. The recording was released digitally on Sept. 22, 2017, by the new Arts Music Division of Warner Music Group; the CD version will be available on Dec. 8. For CD orders and other streaming and purchase options, go to this site.
Even if you love the original cast recording from 1984 which clocked in at 69 minutes, you might want this one for your collection with 10 minutes additional of music, including the accompaniment for “Chromolume No. 7” in Act II, as well as several spoken scenes. It’s a wonderful representation of Sondheim’s score and Lapine’s book. Fenwick conducted again (Mark Michaels served as associate conductor), and the orchestra was enlarged to 18 for the recording.
Interpretations of the leading roles by Gyllenhaal and Ashford will cause Sondheim aficionados to listen carefully all over again to this exquisite and thought-provoking work, one of the few musicals to win the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Both performers use more naturalistic approaches to the roles than their illustrious predecessors. Gyllenhaal’s George is still self-absorbed, but not so coldly obsessive. In fact, he gets beyond “the usual leave-me-alone attitude” (noted by Ben Brantley in the New York Times) and brings a sad, sympathetic intensity to George that differs significantly from Patinkin’s original performance. Gyllenhaal’s tenor vocal range, while not as broad as Patinkin’s, is more than sufficient to carry the role. (Several commentators suggested that he surely had voice lessons in advance of the production’s 10-week engagement.) A video on Gyllenhaal’s Facebook page has him performing “Finishing the Hat” while descends catwalks and wandering through the Hudson’s backstage. It demonstrates his ease and precision with Sondheim’s melodies and lyrics. He brings similar intensity and yearning to the Act II’s George, the artist adrift in the late 20th century.
Meanwhile, Ashford brings sweet, natural warmth to Dot, who is delectable and sly, as well as self-assured enough to “move on” to a new life, even as she regretfully abandons George despite her genuine feelings for him. Ashford’s sense of comic timing adds vivacity to her performance. In Act II she is equally endearing as George’s elderly, droll grandmother Marie, speaking with a gentle Southern drawl.
For a taste of Gyllenhaal and Ashford’s chemistry together, check out the studio recording of “Move On” released to NPR and other media outlets. It’s an ample illustration of the appeal of their performances.
There’s no argument about the virtues of Sunday in the Park’s original production and cast recording, especially performances by Patinkin and Peters. But this new recording has many distinctive and engaging qualities, and some listeners might prefer the natural and poignantly human performances by Gyllenhaal and Ashford. They make Sondheim and Lapine’s magnificent, bittersweet opus about love and art new again. Having a permanent record of this well-received production is something to celebrate.
RICK PENDER is the executive editor and publisher of Everything Sondheim, and the past editor of The Sondheim Review. He has been a local theater critic in Cincinnati for 30 years, and he is a past chair of the American Theatre Critics Association.
It was six weeks later in 2014 before I was able to make my final visit with Elaine. I had called every couple of weeks to check in and each time she urged me to visit. Her excitement pleased me because it made me feel she was still engaged and seeking interaction and stimulation. After my last visit, I had feared she might be on a path toward isolation, surrounding herself with just caretakers and her family.
When I arrived, she was asleep and the condo was very quiet. Instrumental versions of old standards and Broadway show tunes were playing on the music channel on her television, giving the condo the feel of an upscale nursing care facility. The sad but not particularly surprising news was that Elaine was now under hospice care.
When I entered her bedroom, she was sitting up in bed and drinking some orange juice. “Who’s that?” she asked as I walked into the bedroom.
“It’s John,” her caretaker said.
“Oh my God, of course. John, come here darling, let me get a good look,” she said.
She smiled broadly and seemed glad to see me, very glad to have a visitor. Her caretaker left us alone.
“God, you look good, but you’ve lost weight,” she said. “Why don’t you eat a milkshake now and then?”
Other than her painfully obvious weight loss, Elaine actually looked pretty good. He face was full and had good color. Her hair had recently been cut rather short. It looked very good on her. She was well rested and eager to talk.
I took her hand and said, “It’s real good to see you Elaine. You’ve been on my mind a lot.” She reached out to touch me, stroking my arm and leg from her wheelchair. She seemed to want touch. “What’s new?” she asked.
“Oh, not much. School is out for the summer. I had to step in and direct The Music Man at the university because a faculty colleague got sick,” I said.
“Oh god, I hate that show” she said.
“Did you ever play Marian the Librarian?” I asked.
“Are you kidding, who would want to? It’s got to be one of the most boring roles ever written,” she said sounding very much like her old self.
“You know I’m on hospice, don’t you?” she said.
“Yeah, I just heard that today,” I said.
“Well, I told them no more hospitals. I’m done with all that shit. They said the only way to pull that off was to agree to hospice. So I said, what the hell.”
“Are you feeling OK?” I asked.
“I’ve got a boatload of aches and pains, John. Getting in and out of bed and into the wheelchair hurts like hell. But otherwise I’m doing OK, darling. At least I think I’m doing OK. The Hospice chaplain stopped by today, and I sent him away. I hope he doesn’t know something I don’t,” she said.
With that, one of her caretakers — a rather beefy young guy — came into the bedroom to transfer her to the wheelchair. “OK, do you want to put your arms around my neck,” he said. To which Elaine replied, “Oh my god, there’s that line again.”
At the kitchen table, Elaine asked me to read to her from the Times.
“There’s a new high-powered revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance headed for Broadway this fall,” I announced.
“You’re kidding? Who’s in it?” she asked.
“Glenn Close and John Lithgow,” I said.
“Who’s playing Claire?”
“Uh, looks like Lindsay Duncan,” I said.
“I don’t know,” I confessed. “So what do you think?”
“Well, I think Glenn will be pretty good. I don’t think Lithgow is right. He’s a funny guy, but he’ll go for the gags and that will kill that show,” she said.
“I’m sorry I never had a chance to see you in the play.”
“Oh, I am too, John. That was the best work I ever did.”
I asked Elaine about her favorite role over the years. Without hesitation, she said: “Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. He was a clown who drank and made people laugh. He was all comedy as am I. He has a great line, which I always thought was a perfect description of me, ‘God give them wisdom that have it; and those that are fools, let them use their talents.’ If that isn’t how I made my way through life, I don’t know what is.”
The next morning, I got up early to make my exit. Typically, I would step quietly into Elaine’s bedroom to wake her caretaker so that he or she could deactivate the alarm system and let me out. This morning, I tiptoed into the bedroom and woke her male caretaker who was sleeping beside Elaine on the bed. He whispered that Elaine was awake.
“Her eyes are closed, but she’s been awake for a while.”
I approached Elaine on her side of the bed and gently called her name. She opened her eyes and said, “Good morning, John.”
“Elaine, I’m heading out. I didn’t want to wake you, but I’m glad you’re awake so I can say goodbye.”
“When you coming back?” she said.
“Not sure, but as soon as I can.”
“Come any time, you know that. Any time, darling.”
I leaned in close and kissed her cheek. “I do. Keep eating, will you?” I said.
“I will if you will. Have a milkshake now and then why don’t you?”
“I will. After a pause, for the first time, I said, ‘I love you, Elaine.’”
She grabbed my face and looked me in the eye and said, “I love you too. Now have a safe drive and call me when you get home so I won’t worry.”
I made my exit and sat in my car in front of the Dakota right across from her first floor bedroom windows. The bedroom glowed with the blue glow of some old movie playing on her television. I thought to myself that this might be the last time I would see Elaine. I thought back about this incredible journey I had taken with her and about all the ways she had influenced me.
With both gratitude and sadness, I drove away.
Over the next two weeks, Elaine continued to lose weight, becoming more frail and weak. Her caretakers attended to her needs and neighbors and friends were stopping by sensing that her time was coming to an end. Elaine’s breathing became labored and irregular. As it often does in the final stages of life, the breathing can be very deceptive. Those who were with Elaine reported that long pauses would pass between breaths to the point that they weren’t sure if she had stopped breathing for good. But even through her last night, she kept on, without pain or fight.
On the morning of Thursday, July 17, 2014, with her caretakers and a neighbor at her bedside, Elaine died.
News of her passing was picked up in print and broadcast media from New York to Hollywood. Her death was noted on the nightly news broadcasts of the three major networks and several cable stations. The following day, the marquee lights on Broadway were dimmed as New York’s theater community saluted Elaine with its highest honor.
Elaine’s funeral was held in Chicago, a private ceremony for family and friends. Fitting for Elaine, the minister who presided included Broadway show tunes in the celebration and asked those in attendance to honor Elaine with something everyone agreed was her favorite sound: a round of applause.
As she had directed, she was buried next to her husband John Bay. His side of the headstone listed the Groucho Marx line, “Hello, I must be going.” Her portion of the shared tombstone listed her name and her birth and death dates. Underneath her name was her chosen counterpoint to that line: simply, “Later.”
JOHN BELL is the head of the division of performing arts at DeSales University.
Burt Shevelove informally referred to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the 1962 Stephen Sondheim musical he co-authored with Larry Gelbart, as “A Scenario for Vaudevillians.” It’s only fitting that an internationally known impersonator of legendary vaudevillian Groucho Marx, Frank Ferrante, would essay the role of Pseudolus for Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia (Sept. 5-Oct. 22, 2017). Did Ferrante supply enough energy and anarchy to keep the show flying? You bet your life.
Ferrante’s delivery of “Pretty Little Picture” and the second-act reprise of “Lovely” sounded the most Groucho-esque, Ferrante drawing extra laughs during the latter by biting one of the Roman columns in an effort to restrain himself. During an audience talkback following the Sept. 17, matinee, Ferrante described what he visually brought to the production, calling the show “a burlesque from which the Marx Brothers and the (Three) Stooges and Phil Silvers all emerged. I love this proscenium arch — it was my idea (…) like we were walking back in time to the ’20s and ’30s with the footlights and the main curtain. We’re celebrating that style. That’s why you see the Stooges and the Marxes and the Milton Berle [turned-foot] walk (…) It’s a tradition that we’re all part of.” Mary Martello, who played Domina, added, “Everything I know I learned from watching I Love Lucy or Bewitched.”
There were also clever visual bits from the Proteans who, when announcing the impending arrival of Miles Gloriosus, performed elaborate comic salutes and hand gestures. One Protean also brandished a Harpo Marx-like horn in “Comedy Tonight,” during which a prosthetic leg popped up. The sight gags helped propel the relentless action of Pseudolus scheming to earn his freedom
The highlight of the Sept. 17 matinee came when Scott Greer, as Hysterium, accidentally called Ferrante “Hysterium.” Ferrante quickly reached out to the first row of the audience, grabbed a Playbill and recited the names of the characters, reassuring the theatergoers with, “One more rehearsal and we’ll be running!”
As the exasperated Senex, Ron Wisniski contributed a voice somewhere between W.C. Fields and Walter Matthau and more than held up his end of the duet “Impossible.” His aside to the audience, “Never fall in love during a total eclipse,” went over particularly well in the aftermath of the Aug. 21, 2017, solar eclipse. Martello as wife Domina — a character who might have easily been portrayed on film by Margaret Dumont — drew solid laughs throughout the show, including Act II’s “That Dirty Old Man” where she alternately strangled and hugged Hysterium.
Alanna J. Smith as the breathless and clueless Philia scored with Act I’s “Lovely.” Brandon O’Rourke gave a solid performance as Hero, even though his character had conspicuously less to do in the second act. Bill Van Horn’s Erronius was lovably addled, Greer was appropriately tense as Hysterium, and Fran Prisco proved a worthy Lycus. Ferrante, Greer, Wisniski and Prisco’s “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” stopped the show — as always. The Walnut Street production should also be noted for its gender- and colorblind casting: One of the Proteans was played by a woman (Jennie Eisenhower), a male dancer (Billy D. Hart) portrayed the courtesan Gymnasia (displaying Michelle Gaudette’s effective choreography) and Miles Gloriosus was played by an African American (Nichalas L. Parker).
While critics and historians have long associated Sondheim shows with the plotless, “concept” musical, Forum is but one of several works — including West Side Story, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods — with a heavily plotted libretto. The Philadelphia audience had little trouble following the story thanks in part to Robert Andrew Kovach’s spare scenic design, with the houses of Lycus, Senex and Erronius spaced sufficiently apart onstage. John Daniels’ strong conducting of the 11-member orchestra also complemented the production.
No matter how chaotic the outside world can get, one can always count on Forum’s convoluted plot to satisfyingly resolve itself in time for the final curtain. Ferrante’s expert acting and direction made Philadelphia’s staging a production to remember.
ANDREW MILNER contributed a chapter to Stephen Sondheim: A Casebook (Garland Press, 1997) and regularly wrote book and music reviews for the Philadelphia City Paper for 20 years.
In keeping with the reverse-chronology concept of Merrily We Roll Along, let’s start with the ending. It was gorgeous in Maria Friedman’s production at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston (Sept. 8-Oct. 15, 2017). A sky just this side of black was studded with stars, but even brighter were the ones in the eyes of three aspiring artists waiting to see Sputnik usher in a new world. Young Franklin Shepard (Mark Umbers) sang part of “Our Time” in a voice so soft it was almost inaudible, a hush born of awe. Who could help misting up at his innocence — or at the reappearance of Frank nearly 30 years later, alone, disillusioned and struggling to make sense of his successful but artistically wasted life?
That Frank had already appeared at the beginning of the Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1981 show, described in a Huntington publication as “notoriously difficult to direct.” Friedman’s Merrily, first seen at the Menier Chocolate Factor in London in 2012 (and later digitally around the world in its West End transfer), was her debut as a director 20 years after she played Mary in the original British production at Haymarket Theatre. Borrowing the idea of a framing device (but not the same one) from the original Broadway production, she pulled together the nine scenes moving backwards in time into a streamlined, coherent narrative.
In the musical, the lives of Frank, Charley and Mary — first seen in sour middle age — get better as they grow younger. (If only they had known.) And so did this production. The fast-moving first act seemed dutiful but emotionally flat. Then early in the second act something sparked, and by “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” the show had caught fire, burning progressively brighter until the final blackout.
The Huntington production reunited Umbers and Damian Humbley as Charley from the London cast, with Eden Espinosa in place of Jenna Russell as Mary. Umbers played Frank as smooth rather than slick; as “Good Thing Going” makes clear, his tragic character flaw is that he never knows when to stop. Humbley’s Charley was well thought-out but too even-tempered. Singing “Franklin Shepard Inc.” without breaking a sweat, he also never showed the character’s growth over time. Espinosa looked appropriately dumpy but infused her character with verve.
Among the supporting cast, Aimee Doherty’s Gussie was sinuous rather than voluptuous as played by Emily Skinner at the Kennedy Center “Sondheim Celebration” in 2002. Belting the opening-night version of “Good Thing Going,” she strutted like, well, Gypsy Rose Lee (who could have been seen in a Sondheim double-header, since Gypsy was playing almost concurrently at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston). As Beth, Jennifer Ellis almost spat out the lyrics in her Act I “Not a Day Goes By,” bringing to mind Judi Dench’s angry “Send in the Clowns” in 1996 at the National Theater in London. The more hopeful reprise in Act II became Frank and Beth’s wedding vows, with a yearning Mary, ever the third wheel, singing along.
In songs now so familiar and beloved, Sondheim’s shape-shifting motifs came through even more clearly than usual under Matthew Stern’s musical direction: “Good Thing Going” in “There’s not a tune you can hum,” of course, but also “Growing Up” in “The Blob.” (And not just within Merrily: Was it my just imagination, or did I really hear “It was due to arrive/At a quarter to 5,” from Sweeney Todd, in “It’s a Hit”?) It was especially fun to hear “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” in Boston, where the actors had to get the Kennedy accents just right. They did, and the audience approved.
An upstage wall of windows was the focal point of Soutra Gilmour’s sleek rectilinear unit set. Changes of props and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting signaled changes of scene, from a New York penthouse overlooking the city skyline to a California beach house glowing softly with light bouncing off water, and various points in between. Most intriguing was what started out as a barely visible circle penciled on a white wall. Filled in with a drawing reminiscent of Sol LeWitt, a court seal and a television studio’s clocks showing the time in world capitals, it served as visual punctuation. (The NBC peacock was another nice touch.) Scene changes were so smooth as to escape notice. The second time a piano appeared, I had to pay close attention to see if it was rolled off or descended down a trap door.
Gilmour also displayed subtle genius in her period costumes, particularly fashion clichés of the 1960s through ’80s, like Mary’s zip-front Icelandic wool jacket, or the knee-high leather boots she never seemed to take off until she wore sandals with a frumpy gold evening dress to the Broadway opening when everyone else was in New York black. Charley’s pristine white sneakers on opening night (at the Alvin Theater, where the original Merrily flopped) marked him as equally clueless.
The beginning of Merrily is not necessarily its ending, and Frank’s introspection at the end of this production suggests the question might be open. Has he learned from his mistakes? Is it just possible that one and one and one can become three again? The stage goes dark, the show ends, and we’ll never know. But the possibility is tantalizing.
DIANE NOTTLE is a New York-based writer on the arts, language and travel. She was an editor at The New York Times for 20 years, specializing in cultural news.
At age 22, Sandra Church originated the role of Louise in Jule Styne, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy staged by Jerome Robbins. She retired from the theater in the 1960s to pursue a career in the visual arts. She now lives in California. She sat down with Brad Hathaway at her Sausalito home overlooking San Francisco Bay.
Everything Sondheim: Let’s start with a quick look at your life before Gypsy.
Sandra Church: I was born here in San Francisco. My father died when I was two, and I went to San Jose to live with my aunt and uncle, whom I love absolutely. But when I was five my mother took me to Hollywood, hoping I’d become a child star — perhaps the next Margaret O’Brien. We had an apartment over the garage of a house just off Sunset Boulevard, a neighborhood that has entirely changed with the development of “The Strip.” I went to private schools, including St. Ambrose for sixth, seventh and eighth grades and then Immaculate Heart High School. But I was taken out in the 11th grade to audition for replacing Janice Rule in the role of Madge in William Inge’s Picnic on Broadway. I remember that they called me out of class and told me I had to go home and pack to catch a plane at nine o’clock that night. I was 17, and I’d never been on an airplane before. Indeed, I’d never been out east before, and then the day we arrived in New York, there I was having dinner at the Langners. [Editor’s Note: Lawrence Langner was a founder of the Theatre Guild.] Queenie Smith, who ran the Children’s Repertory where I was studying, had sent a photo to the Langners, and they thought I was right for the part but probably too young for the role. That was a problem all through my time in theater. (Jerry Robbins thought I looked too young for the second act of Gypsy too. But we managed.) Janice Rule was leaving Picnic, and the show was going to tour. I was hired to finish out the run in New York and then go on tour, which I did. We even played here in San Francisco at the Geary Theatre for a month, which was a coming-home thrill.
When the tour closed in 1955, my mother gave me a choice of returning to school or staying in New York. That was probably the only time she gave me a choice on anything like that. And who wouldn’t, at that age, think it would be more fun being in New York? I didn’t land another real acting job right away, but I became the assistant color girl for NBC. We would stand on the set under the lights while the technicians adjusted the color before the actual actresses came on. At $25 an hour that was a great gig in 1955! I studied acting under the legendary Lee Strasberg and finally landed Uncle Vanya at the off-Broadway Fourth Street Theatre. Then it was back to Broadway for Holiday for Lovers (1957) at the Longacre with Don Ameche and the short-lived Winesburg, Ohio (1958) at what is now the Nederlander.
EvSo: Who was in the room when you auditioned for Gypsy?
Church: There were many faces out there in the dark. I don’t know who all of them were. Of course there were Jerry [Robbins] and Jule [Styne] and Arthur [Laurents] and Steve [Sondheim]. But I think [Musical Director] Milton Rosenstock and … oh, I don’t know who all. I do remember that Ethel [Merman] was there for the last audition. I auditioned five times! Jerry wanted Carol Lawrence for the part, but he couldn’t get her out of her contract at West Side Story. He wanted as many of the cast from West Side Story as he could get. The final audition, when Ethel was there, is my strongest memory. I pulled out all the stops! Andreas Voutsinas, the Greek actor and director, actually choreographed that final audition for me. Since Jerry thought I was too young for the second act, Andreas and I went to Lord & Taylor in New York and took out a sexy négligé on trial. You could do that then. I wore it for the final scene and then we returned it. Suzanne Pleshette was also auditioning that day, and I don’t think she could believe it when I went into the fully choreographed routine that Andreas came up with. It included “Let Me Entertain You,” “Little Lamb” and a strip. I remember that Ethel cried when I did it. I said to my agent, “It will be the first to go.” She did try to cut it, but it stayed in; thank God and Arthur Laurents, who worked hard to save it!
EvSo: Had you read the entire script, or did you just know about the scenes you were asked to read?
Church: I don’t know if I had read it all at the time of the first audition, but somewhere in the process I did. So I really did understand the role of each scene or selection in the story. My mother also read it. I remember her saying, “Wasn’t that girl good to her mother?” which I found a bit confusing. My mother was a real stage mother. She was often backstage. But she was nothing like the Rose that Ethel created!
EvSo: Tell us about the rehearsal process.
Church: We had five weeks of rehearsal in New York before we went down to Philadelphia. Jerry left Jack Klugman and me alone, and we worked as actors while he was staging and rehearsing the others who had been cast more for singing and dancing. Jerry got Ethel to act; she really acted! This was especially true in the first two months after the show opened. But slowly she went back to being Ethel. Jack and I worked on sense memories and all the other techniques that came from Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. After all, at that time my background had been more in drama than musicals. I’d done Picnic ild and Uncle Vanya f as well as the dramatization of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and the comedy Holiday for Lovers — but no musicals. The last rehearsal before we left for Philadelphia was the final-run through, and they let a lot of people in … friends, other people from the theater. That was when the word started to get out that this was going to be something special. We left for Philadelphia feeling pretty good about it, although we really didn’t hear much of that word-of-mouth as we were too far away and far too busy. Later we learned that there was a lot of buzz after the run through.
EvSo: Was that with full orchestra?
Church: No, we didn’t have the orchestra until we got to Philadelphia. I think we had two pianos for the run through, but usually just one piano.
EvSo: Was John Kander one of the pianists?
Church: Oh, yes! He was so nice to us.
EvSo: Did you get notes from all the creatives or did they tell Jerry and he passed them on?
Church: It didn’t seem quite that regimented at the time. I don’t recall having much contact with Steve, but Arthur helped a lot one-on-one, and, of course, Jule would rehearse the songs with us, along with Milton. But Arthur, as the author of the book, was the obvious one for Jack [Klugman] and me to seek out as we worked out the scenes. Also, Jack and I both were trying to “act the songs” more than just sing them. I do remember talking with Jule about the fact that “Little Lamb” falls right at the breakpoint of the voice, which made it a difficult song to sing. I don’t think he changed anything, though. The strip number was the last thing that Jerry handled with me. He kept putting it off. I think he just didn’t know what to do with it, and then he just didn’t have much time available by the time he did turn to it. We were trying all sorts of different gimmicks during the Philly run. One time he even wanted to have Ethel walking around upstage of me while I stripped! What a terrible idea! Well, I just did it lousy that night and, sure enough, he abandoned that idea. Also in Philly, Lane Bradbury replaced Carole D’Andrea as June. Carole was great, but she just couldn’t be heard. In those days we didn’t wear microphones, so you really had to project and get your voice out into the house. My agent brought in Lane. She was so sweet and was a great June. Jerry was so mean to her, but he had a reputation for being mean. One day when we were working on one of the “Let Me Entertain You” spots where Lane was supposed to do the splits while twirling her batons and Jerry hid her batons and made her keep doing the splits while twirling her empty hands. She had tears running down her cheeks.
EvSo: How about the real Gypsy Rose Lee?
Church: She was wonderful to me. She had me over to her house, showed me a lot of her memorabilia and was completely supportive. She didn’t try to control how I portrayed her. We both understood this was fiction: It was a play and I was acting. She even gave me a pair of her strip pants. I still have them! I remember that she had fabulous blue-and-white Royal Copenhagen open-weave china. I admired that so much I bought some myself.
EvSo: Can you tell us about the opening night on May 21, 1959?
Church: The party at Sardi’s was really the pre-party. It was the “wait for the reviews” routine, but then we had a great after-party-party where Jule could play the piano. He loved to be the one at the piano at parties. I remember one night when he took me to a gathering at the Barclay Hotel after the show while we were in Philadelphia. Not only did he play the piano, but Steve did, too. It wasn’t often you would see Jule let someone else play.
EvSo: How about recording the original cast album on May 24 and 31, 1959?
Church: It was fun! Jule and Arthur and Steve and Jerry were all there, telling us what to do that might be a little different than onstage. After all, on a record you can’t have the visuals. My real memory, though, was just how much fun it was. By then we knew we had a hit, and we knew it all worked. So it was fun putting it on tape. But it was also hard work. We didn’t get it all down in the one-day recording session that first Sunday, so we had to have a second session the next Sunday which meant I got another week’s pay. That’s what you got for a day’s recording: a week’s worth of your salary.
EvSo: What can you share with us about events during the run?
Church: Well, for one thing, it was great to have Milton Rostenstock in the pit. He was so encouraging. He urged us on with his body language while he was conducting. It helped us get into or stay in the groove, if you will pardon that trite expression. My relationship with Ethel was an on-again, off-again thing. Once, when a comment of mine was misrepresented as a criticism of her — I had complained that some cast members could stretch out a moment too long and someone told Ethel I was talking about her — she totally shut me out. I went to her dressing room, which was on the stage level downstairs from mine, but I was not allowed in. For months she wouldn’t even talk to me in the wings. But I guess she got as tired of it as I had because at Christmas she sent a lovely simple gold bracelet. When I opened it I ran downstairs and burst into her dressing room. I said, “Oh, Ethel. I love it!” and she turned to me and started talking just as if there had never been a problem. We had a lot of celebrities who came backstage after the show. Oh, I sure remember the night that Cary Grant came backstage. He was so handsome and suave and he shook everybody’s hand. The next night, when Jack Klugman arrived at the theater for the evening’s performance, he came in to my dressing room and said, “Sandra, you see this hand? I haven’t washed it since Cary Grant shook it.”
EvSo: Tell us about the night of the Tony Awards when the show had eight nominations but didn’t win any awards.
Church: Oh I didn’t attend at the … where was it? The Astor Hotel? I mean, why would I want to sit through that knowing that I didn’t win? In those days, they told you in advance if you were a winner. I remember I bet Jack $10 that he wouldn’t win. I don’t know if Ethel had to attend, but I didn’t and so I didn’t.
EvSo: After over a year, the show transferred from the Broadway Theatre to the Imperial. Shortly after the move, you left the show and Julienne Marie took over the role. How did the transition work?
Church: They wanted to make the shift to Julienne at the same time as the transfer, but since they hadn’t let me out of my contract to take movie offers early in the run I wasn’t inclined to bow out early for them. I said, “I have a contract so I’ll play the first three weeks at the Imperial.” And I did.
EvSo: Tell us about your last night in the show?
Church: The big deal that night was the way I did the strip. I actually rehearsed it with my singing teacher. I pulled out all the stops to sell the number with umphs and bumps on “We’ll! – Have! – A! – Real! – Good! – Time!” and made the dance more playful. I remember the look on Milton’s face as he realized I was singing it differently. Everyone backstage could tell as well, and Ethel came into the wings to watch. The band was so excited they stood up, and Dick Perry, the trumpet player, began blasting away as I threw pennies down into the pit! The number had gone differently during the run as we tried different things. Sometimes it was a question of “how will she strip tonight?” But that last night I really did what I wanted to with the moment and let it all out, getting down and, well, not necessarily dirty but jazzy. The audience reaction was different, and it really was what the script needed. In fact, when Julienne took over the next night they changed the number to be more like what I did that night.
EvSo: Did you want the part in the movie?
Church: Oh, sure! Doesn’t everyone want the movie of a role that was theirs? But Merrick had already hurt my chances in Hollywood when he wouldn’t let me take any of the offers I got during the run of the show. I had five good offers, but I was under an 18-month contract at $450 a week. I offered to extend the end of the contract for the time I was out to do a movie. But Merrick would not budge. And if you don’t take the offers when the taking is good, it’s too late by the time you are available.
EvSo: Did you see Natalie Wood’s performance? What did you think?
Church: She did a good job in it. But I still wish I’d gotten the part. She came to see the show five times while they were casting the movie. She came backstage each time. It made me so mad. I knew she was there to copy what was good in my performance, and they kept me on the hook for a long time so that there would be publicity about the possibility of my doing the role in the movie.
EvSo: Tell us more about David Merrick.
Church: Everybody hated him because he was such a cheapskate. But I didn’t hate him. He was never mean to me, always very proper. But he sure deserved his reputation as cheap! I heard that the seamstresses couldn’t even buy a spool of thread without getting approval. I had a very heavy leather jacket, which was torture in the summer when it was so very hot onstage. I asked for a lighter-weight one to use in the summer. But, no, he wouldn’t spend the money. I liked Leland Hayward, the other producer of Gypsy, but Merrick was just so cheap! Gypsy was the only show I did for him. Jule wanted me to do Do Re Mi, which Merrick did with him, Garson Kanin and Comden and Green for Phil Silvers. But I knew working with Silvers would be like working with Ethel again: They both always played way out front, playing to the audience and not to you. I mean, this is theater, not opera where you sing “I love you” facing the audience instead of the person you are supposed to be telling that you love them! Ethel was the most out-front actress, and Phil Silvers would be just like that. Right after Gypsy I did Under the Yum-Yum Tree (1960-1961) with Dean Jones and I was right back in that bind: He was always playing out front and leaving me nothing to play to.
EvSo: That was your last role on Broadway. Why did you quit?
Church: I took stock and decided that I didn’t want to grow up to be an Ethel Merman. I was offered some shows: Hal Prince offered me Cabaret. But I really quit. I had a small inheritance — some $15,000 — that my great aunt had left me. She had been a fascinating lady! Her name was Mary Florence Denton. She went to Japan in the 1880s to teach in missionary schools and stayed in Kyoto through both world wars. I used that money to take a trip that changed my life — three months in the Far East where I fell in love with all those wonderful sculptures in India, and decided I really wanted to turn to the visual arts, to painting. That trip was also the start of my lifelong love of traveling. But I knew that I’d have to be able to support myself as a painter so I needed to continue with acting for a while. I did some television: The Eleventh Hour, Kraft Suspense Theatre, The Doctors and Nurses. But it was the movie I did with Marlon Brando, The Ugly American, that gave me the chance not only to earn a substantial sum but the time to complete high school. They signed me to a contract for 12 weeks at something like $1,500 a week, and I went back to my high school, Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles, and the nuns tutored me to cover what I had missed by leaving for New York to do Picnic. They were wonderful and included me in the graduating class of 1962. The 12-week job stretched and stretched because Marlon Brando never came on the set until 11 in the morning. The studio was furious over the delay and what it did to the budget, but I didn’t care. I was getting my weekly salary and had time for my studies. The 12 weeks ended up being seven months! I made $40,000. It all might have been different if Ethel had gotten to take Gypsy to London instead of the national tour. If she had, I probably would have done it, too. And the London theater world is so different from Broadway that I might have felt at home there and continued a live theater career. But it wasn’t meant to be. I still love going to theater, and I’ve seen quite a few productions of the show — all the Broadway revivals except Angela Lansbury’s. I think my favorite production (other than our original, of course) was the Paper Mill production in 1998 with Betty Buckley. But the real treat was when I went to London and saw Imelda Staunton in the West End. She is such an actress — the strongest Rose I ever saw. When I went to London I wrote out a note to her and took it by the stage door. I told the doorman, “This isn’t a fan note. She really will know who I am. Please get it to her.” The next morning she called on the phone, and we had just the friendliest chat. I asked if I could buy a house seat, but she wouldn’t hear of my paying. She was so welcoming!
EvSo: Thank you so much for taking this time with us.
BRAD HATHAWAY retired to live with his wife on a houseboat in Sausalito, Calif., after nearly two decades covering theatre in Washington, D.C., Broadway and nation-wide. He is a member of the executive committee of the American Theatre Critics Association.
In 2014 when I arrived at The Dakota in Detroit for my second-to-last visit with Elaine Stritch, she was sitting up in her bed. Her arms and legs were noticeably thin. Those endless gams of hers had begun to look twig-like. For the first time, she looked frail and vulnerable.
As I entered, her hair was disheveled and she was searching for vision, moving her head around to get her subject in her increasingly diminished sightline. “Oh my god, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” she said when she saw me. I took her hand and squeezed it tight and looked into her eyes.
“Well, you look a little thinner, but not too much worse for the wear,” I said.
“Not too much, eh?” she said. “You sure know how to flatter a girl.”
Just then, bounding into the bedroom came a brown, longhaired dachshund followed by a young woman named Jody. The dachshund jumped up on the bed and was warmly greeted by Elaine.
“My god, who’s this?” I asked.
“Oh, this is the newest member of the family: Marshall Bay. And this is Jody. She’s my dog walker, and she’s training the little bastard to stop peeing all over the fucking place.”
“He did well today, Elaine. We’re close to having him under control,” Jody said.
“Oh, yeah, that’s what you think. He crapped on the dining room rug yesterday. So I’d say we still have work to do. Isn’t that right?” she said, rubbing Marshall’s head. “You little twit.”
• • •
As we continued to talk, with Elaine updating me on her most recent trials, I noticed a clear deterioration in her cognitive function. She would occasionally slip into momentary confusion, inserting words that made no sense in the context of the thought she was trying to communicate. These lapses didn’t last long. What was particularly interesting was that she didn’t respond the way Elaine would typically respond, that is, fighting to get through the memory lapse. Now she just lingered in the confusion, consigned to defeat. The absence of the fight was most telling.
• • •
That afternoon around the kitchen table, I read a bit from the Times. A notice about Kristin Chenoweth starring in an upcoming revival of On the Twentieth Century elicited a “Who’s that?” from Elaine. I told her she was the petite blond who starred as the good witch in Wicked. “She’s got a fabulous voice,” I said. “She can belt, she can sing legit opera, you name it.”
“Well, I have no idea who she is,” Elaine said. “And why she’d want to star in On the Twentieth Century is beyond me.”
I showed Elaine a YouTube clip from The Rosie O’Donnell Show where she sang “Something Very Strange” from Sail Away. The song lyric refers to a woman surprised that finally something good was coming to her in life. “I think this is a real fine performance, Elaine.”
“Yeah” she said, “not too bad.”
“When I watch this I see an actress who knows how to work against the obvious meaning of the lyric,” I suggested. “If the lyric suggests sadness or regret, she knows to keep it light until just the right moment. And then, for only an instant, she allows the character’s vulnerability to break through, almost as if by denying it for most of the song, the pressure builds up before it comes crashing out. And then you rein it in with a sense of ‘Oh well, life is tough for us all. No crying about it.’”
“Well, I think that’s a good observation,” Elaine said. “Crying is never very interesting to me. When I see someone cry onstage, that rarely affects me. But watching someone try not to cry, and lose control, and then pull it back in … well, that’s a hell of a lot more interesting, don’t you think? That’s what we do in real life.”
“One of my greatest gifts – if talent is a gift, and I think it is,” she continued, “is that I have always known exactly what an audience needs. I can’t explain it. I just feel it while I’m doing it, and I know how to make sure they get what they need.”
I enjoyed talking about acting with Elaine. It’s a hard thing to talk about, to put words to, but when we did, it was always interesting. I think Elaine enjoyed it because, inevitably, it was flattering to her. She knew she was with someone who observed her work with great care.
• • •
Later that evening, after dinner, we worked our way through a stack of cards and letters from fans. Liz Smith continued to report on Elaine’s health in her column, which spurred a resurgence in Elaine’s fan mail. One card included a photo of Elaine at the age of 18, sitting in New York’s Central Park reading a letter. Her bicycle was behind her. She was wearing a halter-top and short shorts. The sender included the newspaper clipping which stated that Elaine had been cited by the NYPD for appearing in the park in such revealing attire — with the Judge quipping that her appearance was enough to “incite a riot.”
“Oh my god, look at that. Isn’t that great?” Then after a deep pause, “Jesus, John, it all goes so fast.”
As she had done before, Elaine asked for a back rub. Her shoulders were very bony, her weight loss painfully evident. But I could tell she enjoyed the touch. After just a few minutes, Elaine started to get sleepy. After she was settled back in her bedroom, I said goodbye, telling her I’d call again soon for another visit.
I felt compelled not to wait; time was beginning to feel urgent.
NOTE: The second part of “The Final Chapter” will be posted on Nov. 10, 2017.
JOHN BELL is the head of the division of performing arts at DeSales University in Pennsylvania.
Does Maria Friedman remind you a little of Barbara Cook? Though her blond hair is a short bob rather than a flowing mane, Friedman seems to be reinventing herself in mid-career just as Cook did in her 50s, and Stephen Sondheim’s music is playing a big part.
From Sept. 19 to 23, 2017, she brought Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim and Bernstein to 54 Below in Manhattan for five performances. Just in from Boston, where she not only directed the Huntington Theater Company’s current Merrily We Roll Along but also performed this solo show as part of the Huntington’s season-opening celebration, Friedman showed no signs of wear. Dressed on opening night in midnight blue with a shawl sparkling like city lights, she pointed out that Sondheim and Bernstein were both “quintessential New Yorkers.”
Friedman is a Sondheim veteran, having played Mary in Merrily We Roll Along, been nominated for an Olivier Award as Dot in the 1990 London Sunday in the Park with George and won as Fosca in the 1996 Passion. Originally, she explained, she intended this to be an all-Sondheim show, ending with “Somewhere.” But her musical director, Jason Carr, overruled her: “It’s not Sondheim; it’s Bernstein.” So she decided to do both — logical, considering their collaboration on West Side Story and Bernstein’s centennial year, already starting with a bang.
Carr’s piano overture opened with a few teasing notes from Bernstein’s “Glitter and Be Gay” before romping through Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight” and “Company,” then back to Bernstein with Candide and “New York, New York.” Once Friedman took the stage, she presented a series of mini-sets on themes including love, loss and New York, segueing seamlessly from one song into another.
Friedman’s “Lonely Town” sounded more West End than Broadway before she slid into a masterly “Another Hundred People,” in which she made a complete journey from innocence to experience, from wide-eyed newcomer — “I want to dress all in black!” — to a New Yorker who knows the score. “In Buddy’s Eyes” (suggesting Friedman would make an admirable Sally Plummer in Follies) was sandwiched between “A Little Bit in Love” and “I Have a Love.” “So Pretty,” a 1968 Bernstein protest song, led into “Take Care of This House” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — so timely and so chilling — and “Children Will Listen.”
While Friedman often sounded breathy in the early numbers, her voice progressively gained strength through the 85-minute show. Her renderings throughout reminded listeners that acting a song is at least as important as singing it.
Between songs, she told war stories about singing Sondheim on the London stage. She offered her experience with “Getting Married Today” for a Cameron Mackintosh anniversary concert, which, she knew, “If it went catastrophically wrong, that would be understating.” (Apparently it didn’t; she proceeded to sing it wearing a bridal veil, sounding comic rather than desperate, Amy as a New York transplant with a British accent.) Or the time she was Mrs. Lovett in a concert version of Sweeney Todd and clearly heard a woman in the audience ask her companion, “Do you want a bonbon?” And then there was the first time she sang Sondheim for Sondheim himself — “Broadway Baby,” here as a dreamer absolutely sure the dream will come true.
As for that career reinvention: Like so many actresses before her, “I got to a certain age and hit a brick wall,” said Friedman, 56. Now, as a director, she said, “I cast women of a certain age whenever I can.”
After 75 minutes she did end, for the moment, with “Somewhere.” But then she returned — “Prepare to see a middle-aged woman’s humiliation” — to sing all the roles in “Gee, Officer Krupke.” In an effort worthy of Jefferson Mays’ multi-role performance in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, switching off headgear (a Boston Red Sox cap, a British judge’s curly white wig) and voices (nasal teenage Brooklynese, psychiatric German) to match the roles. One last piece of Bernstein, the ever-wistful “Some Other Time,” closed the show. Played offstage to Merrily,” Friedman was last sighted holding court at the bar, still in midnight blue and still sparkling.
DIANE NOTTLE is a New York-based writer on the arts, language and travel. She was an editor at The New York Times for 20 years, specializing in cultural news.
The Hayes Theatre Company in Sydney delivers a riveting, high energy and highly accomplished production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s 1990 musical Assassins (Sept. 15-Oct. 22, 2017). The political backdrop of the production strongly evokes a Trumpesque universe that is divisive, bizarre, threatening and unpredictable. On the show’s September opening night the Sydney audience gasped then laughed in recognition when the Balladeer sang:
Every now and then the country
Goes a little wrong.
Every now and then a madman’s
Bound to come along.
From the moment the theater doors open and audience members take their seats, the Proprietor is onstage in a director’s chair, engrossed in reading Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal while listening to alt-right commentary on a portable transistor radio. This sets the scene for a Trump backdrop and acts as a prelude to the opening number, “Everybody’s Got the Right.”
The themes in Assassins are timeless and translate well across national boundaries. The individual stories of the assassins (from 1865 and 1981), as well as the collective meanings of their deeds, provoke both introspection and reflection on national dreams, aspirations and myths — whether American, Australian or any other.
Though satirical in tone, the show resonates with concerns that people across the globe now have about violence and terror. Indeed the seeds that create the would-be assassin (or the would-be terrorist) often stem from a similar terrain of disempowerment, frustration and a thirst for revenge. The assassins and their voices in this musical are recognizable — whether on the streets of Charlottesville, the Trump election rallies of 2016 or the agitated far-right marches on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne.
The wayward, diverse characters that inhabit this musical, each with his or her peculiar logic and reason, oscillate between sorrow and stupidity, farce and tragedy, comedy and horror. That’s a challenge for any director undertaking this unconventional show, and Dean Bryant achieves balance brilliantly between the drama and the vaudeville. As the characters fluctuate between the comical and the shocking, Bryant’s careful and slick direction ensures that it doesn’t descend into slapstick or melodrama. The transitions between scenes and within songs and ballads are smooth, fluid and executed with surety and confidence.
There was much anticipation of David Campbell playing John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, and he doesn’t disappoint, giving an impressive performance vocally and dramatically. In this role we see Campbell’s evolution and maturity in another major Sondheim role. American audiences will know him from the New York premiere and cast recording of Saturday Night (2000) in which he played the role of Gene. His previous Sondheim role was as Robert in the Sydney production of Company (2007). As Booth he brings to the role a sense of self-righteous vindictiveness, vanity and the insecurity of a failing alcoholic actor with an exaggerated view of his role in history.
While Campbell well deserves the accolades for his noteworthy performance, equal recognition must be given to the ensemble. Each and every one of them gives a formidable performance. A splendid line-up of vocal richness reverberates throughout the theater and scene after scene as the performers dazzle with their acting, singing and personification of this array of misfits and madmen.
Because of the limited role he plays, we are only given glimpses of Rob McDougall’s lush and commanding baritone voice as the Proprietor. As a would-be poster boy for the NRA, he gives the assassins their weapons, supplies them with ammunition and entices them to “kill a president.” Onstage he exudes a sinister character, fuelling their rage. His delivery of “Everybody’s got the right/To be different./Even though/At times/They go to extremes” is chilling yet operatic.
Maxwell Simon, an exciting new talent making his professional theater debut as the Balladeer, embodies a youthful teen in shorts, sweater, sneakers and guitar-in-hand narrating the stories and following the tradition of Balladeers with songs of hope and optimism. He also interjects and corrects the distortions and falsehoods of the assassins. He powerfully transitions from the cheerful Balladeer to step into the role of Lee Harvey Oswald as a tortured soul, groomed by the other assassins to immortalize himself by shooting President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Such is the power and tension of this scene that it could be imagined in a parallel moment in which Jihadists might brainwash a would-be terrorist to commit a shocking act of vengeance.
Bobby Fox gives the standout performance as Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President James Garfield in 1881 when his desperate desire to become the American ambassador to France was ignored. He sports a haircut straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the fluttering eye movements of a madman and a bowtie to match. Charming but insane, likable but alarming, he gives a brilliant characterization of Guiteau that rises to even more heights as he mounts the gallows steps singing “I am going to the Lordy” in “The Ballad of Guiteau.”
As Giuseppe Zangara, the failed assassin of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, Martin Crewes gives an intense and stirring portrayal of the Italian immigrant completely disenfranchised and overwhelmed in a new country. He conveys an agonizing combination of physical pain and mental anguish matched by a forceful vocal performance.
Jason Kos as Leon Czolgosz, President William McKinley’s assassin in 1901, is the convincing embodiment of the wistful proletariat foreign worker, speaking with a heavy Polish accent and burdened by an impending fatalism. Inspired by Emma Goldman, effectively played by Laura Bunting, he powerfully articulates and illuminates a political manifesto of a capitalist system that reproduces vast inequalities between the haves and have-nots in a dog-eat-dog world.
The duo of Kate Cole as Sara Jane Moore and Hannah Fredericksen as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme greatly impress and tantalize as the stoned, ridiculous would-be assassins who shot at President Gerald Ford in 1975. (Fromme had no bullets in her gun!) Their ludicrous machinations generate amusement and awkward laughter from the audience.
Connor Crawford as John Hinckley Jr. gives a compelling portrait of a troubled, brooding and deluded young man, obsessed with young actress Jodie Foster; to win her love in 1981, he decided to shoot President Ronald Reagan. The duet “Unworthy of Your Love,” sung with Hannah Fredericksen, expresses the pain of unrequited love and the deluded mindset of their infatuation with their love objects: Hinckley with Foster and Fromme with mass murderer Charles Manson.
Justin Smith gives a memorable performance as Samuel Byck, the comic/tragic disheveled fast-talking failed assassin who plans to highjack a plane and crash it into the White House to kill President Richard Nixon in 1974. Dressed as Santa Claus, he mesmerizes and captivates the audience with manic pronouncements and tape-recorded messages to Leonard Bernstein.
Assassins does not follow a typical musical theater structure. It is assembled as a revue, a montage of interconnected scenes. It starts with the dreamlike and mechanical sounds of a carnival fairground and covers a range of musical genres including infusions of traditional folk tunes and rhythms of John Philip Sousa and Stephen Foster. Under the musical direction of Andrew Worboys and Steven Kreamer, and blessed with an ensemble of rich, well projected voices, the singing, tempo control and music arrangements are beautifully realized.
The set and costume design by Alicia Clements present a rich multitude of colors, lights, fairground props, posters of presidents as shooting targets, merry-go-round, bumper cars and other carnival regalia depicting a surreal world into which the assassins can escape. A retreat from the real world! Complementing Clements’ colorful and detailed sets is effective lighting by Ross Graham who highlights with careful precision the show’s changing movements and moods. On the Hayes Theatre’s small and limited stage, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth sets in motion steps and movements that add coordinated expression and meaning to the stories.
The show climaxes with “Another National Anthem” in which all of the assassins, in a spirit of defiance and unified dissent, lament the American dream that they have been denied:
There’s another national anthem, folks,
For those who never win,
For the suckers, for the pikers,
For the ones who might have been …
Soon after, the lights focus on the Proprietor happily holding up a copy of The New York Post with a triumphal Donald Trump beaming on the front cover. At last their savior has been found. But be careful what you wish for!
PETER KHOURY is a writer and academic in Sydney.
Stephen Sondheim once joked that an album of his chart-topping songs would have to be titled Sondheim’s Greatest Hit, since he had only one, “Send In the Clowns.” Hal Prince, the legendary producer and director, has had a few more. Prince of Broadway, the revue that finally had its Broadway opening (Aug. 24, 2017) after five years of financing and creative delays, could have legitimately been subtitled Hal Prince’s Greatest Hits. (It’s set to close on Oct. 29, 2017.)
As a celebration of his seven-decade career, from The Pajama Game (1954) to Prince of Broadway itself, the show was a crowd-pleaser when I saw it on a rainy Saturday night over Labor Day weekend. As an exploration of Prince-Sondheim collaboration that resulted in eight original Broadway musicals — some landmarks, some now cult phenomena — it felt like a lite yet drawn-out version of David Loud’s A Good Thing Going, first presented at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in 2015 and returning to the city on Dec. 4, 2017, for a sold-out performance at Kaufman Music Center’s Merkin Concert Hall.
Directed by Prince, with Susan Stroman as co-director and choreographer, the show might be considered a companion piece to the Roundabout Theater Company’s 2010 Sondheim on Sondheim, now making the rounds in a concert version. (In July 2017 it played at Tanglewood and the Hollywood Bowl.) There Sondheim comments on his life and work on video; here the nine cast members stood in for Prince, one by one reciting his reflections.
That, and the sort-of not-quite chronological order of three-dozen songs from Prince musicals, was the extent of the book by David Thompson, who let the numbers speak for themselves. One minute Emily Skinner was recounting Prince’s first meeting with Sondheim at South Pacific; the next, their partnership had begun with West Side Story. The logic of some segues was elusive. A lively “You’ve Got Possibilities” from It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman (1966) led straight into Follies, perhaps because of the need to assemble a Loveland-like set for “Beautiful Girls” behind the comic-book curtain.
Audience members arrived in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Freidman Theater to find a now-commonplace empty stage, furnished with a ghost light and lots of pulleys. “Broadway Baby” led off the overture arranged by music supervisor Jason Robert Brown (whose Parade was among the Prince productions represented in the show). To purists, it was jarring to hear snippets of Sondheim songs interspersed with those of other composers, as in the mini-mashup of “Maria” and “Evita.” Yet the show served as a reminder that there’s a lot more to Prince than just Sondheim, from Damn Yankees to Kiss of the Spider Woman. Projected titles of his shows were truly impressive, both in number and in execution as they floated in the air seemingly without touching the scrim. Beowulf Borritt’s set and projection designs also included subtle bands of light on a drop of the Cotton Blossom that kept “Ol’ Man River” from Prince’s 1994 revival of Show Boat visibly rolling along.
The quick shifts from one show to another meant quick changes for the actors as well. In the early scenes it seemed as if they might never truly become their characters, as opposed to just singing their songs. Then came Follies, and Karen Ziemba brought Sally to life, as Skinner did Phyllis. Later Ziemba traded in her normally bubbly persona for world-weariness and ultimately conviction as Fraulein Schneider in “So What?” from Cabaret.
Michael Xavier’s Frederik in “You Must Meet My Wife,” from A Little Night Music, was a hyper-accented British twit, perhaps a misguided homage to Jeremy Irons in the role at New York City Opera in 2003. While following suit with the accent, Skinner’s Desirée was far more successful in “Send In the Clowns,” ravishingly accompanied by 15-musician orchestra conducted by Fred Lassen.
In another disconnect, the show moved from there into Fiddler on the Roof with Chuck Cooper (Ben Stone in Follies just two scenes before) as Tevye. The shape-shifting Cooper later sang “Ol’ Man River” a good octave higher than Paul Robeson or William Warfield ever did, and Sweeney Todd’s “My Friends” to Ziemba’s convincing Mrs. Lovett.
The second act opened with Company, in which three-and-a-half couples serenaded Bobby on his birthday. Beyond a short blond wig, Skinner made no attempt to channel Elaine Stritch in “The Ladies Who Lunch,” offering a softer Joanne, but her “Ah-h-h-h-h-’ll drink to that!” came out as a primal scream. Later Skinner gave an incisive “Now You Know,” from Merrily We Roll Along.
Throughout, Stroman’s choreography was largely unobtrusive — except when it wasn’t. Brandon Uranowitz’s “Tonight at 8” from She Loves Me” borrowed heavily from Gene Kelly’s twirl around a lamppost in Singin’ in the Rain. Tony Yazbeck, playing Follies’ Buddy as a hoofer, turned “The Right Girl” into a tap extravaganza, most effective (as Eleanor Powell so memorably proved) when the steps were small, quick and light. For those who experienced 1970 firsthand, Ziemba’s Swim and Jerk moves for Company rang a delightful bell.
Janet Dacal, Bryonha Marie Parham and Kaley Ann Voorhees rounded out the cast in roles ranging from ingénues (Maria, Christine Daae) to divas (Evita, Sally Bowles).
After an obligatory three-song nod to The Phantom of the Opera that felt as tired as the show itself, now in its 30th year, Prince of Broadway closed with a new song by Brown, “Do the Work.” It summed up Prince’s philosophy — take a chance, find your voice, tell the story — and the audience lapped it up.
The hardcore Sondheim crowd, though, would have found its takeaway early in the show in one of Prince’s reflections: “Never confuse hits and flops with success and failure.” Who knows that better?
DIANE NOTTLE is a New York-based writer on the arts, language and travel. She was an editor at The New York Times for 20 years, specializing in cultural news.