Friday, January 8, 2010

Sondheim on Sondheim: The Chamber Approach

The January 4th edition of The New York Times has an article in the Arts Section by Patrick Healy about the trend of reviving Sondheim musicals, and more particularly, the trend toward making them more intimate, chamber-style pieces rather than grand scale musicals. I'd say it is more than a trend when you consider that 1998 was the last calendar year that didn't have Sondheim playing somewhere on Broadway (not even including his contributions to shows by Elaine Stritch, Chita Rivera and Barbara Cook or his off-Broadway representations: Saturday Night, Road Show and the forthcoming Encores presentation of Anyone Can Whistle. To wit: 1999-2000: Putting It Together, 2001 - Follies, 2002 - Into the Woods, 2003 - Gypsy (Bernadette Peters), 2004 - Assassins, The Frogs, Pacific Overtures, 2005 - Sweeney Todd, 2006-07 - Company, 2008 - Gypsy (Patti LuPone), 2009 - West Side Story, 2010 - A Little Night Music and Sondheim on Sondheim.

And so I found it humorous to hear the master composer say, "I went right from being avant-garde to old hat in five minutes." I don't think you could say he is old hat. Perhaps you could say that he was way ahead of his time, that his works paved the way for more challenging topics and themes in musicals. Later in the article, Trevor Nunn, director of the current A Little Night Music talks about going to see next to normal and how much that show owes its success to the Sondheim shows before it, during it and after it. His thinking, and I have to agree, is that by reviving Sondheim, re-imagining Sondheim, we prepare newer and newer audiences for more challenging theatre.

Though I have not yet seen A Little Night Music, I have read the criticism that perhaps this is one show where the paring down does somewhat of a disservice to the piece; that it screams for lush orchestration and lavish production values. I thought of that very thing when the revival of West Side Story was announced. I hoped and was relieved to find that that score is being played by a full orchestra, like the revivals of Gypsy. I think those scores in particular deserve to be heard in their entirety. Also, I don't see much room for re-invention with either show.

Sondheim himself seems to embrace the "chamberization" of his shows, "The good news from this chamber approach is that you get to concentrate on the piece of work rather than on the production." While he may have been referring to collaborating on these changes, I think the exact same is true for audiences. I think both Sweeney Todd and Company benefitted from the less-is-more approach, forcing the audience to focus, concentrate and think about what they were seeing. (I saw the 1995 revival of Company and enjoyed it, but I found the 2006 revival revelatory and stunning.)

And yet, Sondheim can see where audiences might miss the grander scale of his less intimate songs, like "A Weekend in the Country." Still, he goes on, the current revival of Night Music is giving audiences the intended experience. In other words, this is more what he pictured when writing the show in the 1970's.

Which brings us back to the avant-garde vs. old hat. Like James Lapine, frequent collaborator and director of the forthcoming Sondheim on Sondheim says in the article, " speaks to Sondheim's inventive work that his shows are and will probably remain challenges to directors and allow for experimentation." And Lincoln Center's Andre Bishop hits the nail on the head when he supports the idea that audiences today are ready for Sondheim. "I vividly remember people rushing to the exits during the original Sunday in the Park with George, [and having similar reactions to] Assassins. These shows are now considered classics...critics and audiences and directors have caught up with Steve."

So, will we continue to have to settle for revivals or will the master challenge us with new material? According to the article, YES! "Mr. Sondheim is still at it writing new songs. 'I'm just nibbling at shows, he said. As for a new full-length musical? 'Certainly hoping so," he said."

And the theatre world breathes a collective sigh of relief!

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