Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Sondheim at 75 (Part Two)

This review originally appeared in The Metro Herald in June 1998:

From Show Boat to Sondheim
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Last year, Oxford University Press published a new book by Professor Geoffrey Block entitled Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from Show Boat to Sondheim. In an interesting blend of theatre history and musicology, Block traces the changes and the commonalities that occur in the uniquely American art form, the musical play. On the surface, the differences between Show Boat and any Sondheim musical seem to predominate. The fact is, however, that Stephen Sondheim represents the best of a 70-plus year tradition even as he massages the form and takes it to a new level of both intellect and entertainment.

The tradition was literally handed down personally to Sondheim. Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist of Show Boat, served as a mentor to the teenage Sondheim, guiding him as he learned the tasks of playwriting, musical composition, and lyric writing. When Sondheim was 15 years old, Hammerstein -- who was a neighbor of Sondheim's family in rural Pennsylvania -- gave the ambitious youngster a three-tiered assignment to help him learn the craft: first, write a musical based upon a previously produced play; second, write a musical based upon a novel or short story not previously dramatized; and third, write an original musical play based upon nothing but the imagination. Hammerstein then took a brutal but fair editing pencil to each work, teaching Sondheim the art of concise writing that is necessary to any creation that has both passion and wit. Later, Sondheim served as a gofer for the production company during the creation of Allegro, the original 1948 musical that became Rodgers and Hammerstein's first Broadway flop. (Nothing teaches the principles of success better than a magnificent failure.)

Washington area audiences have the opportunity this summer to observe both the beginnings of the American musical theatre tradition and its culmination in the early works of Stephen Sondheim. Show Boat, in the form of Harold Prince's award-winning 1994 Broadway revival, is playing at the Kennedy Center Opera House through July 19. At the same time, Arlington's Signature Theatre is presenting a revue of Sondheim songs originally performed at New York's Whitney Museum in 1983, You're Gonna Love Tomorrow: A Stephen Sondheim Evening, playing through July 5.

The contrasts are most striking. Show Boat is a big musical of cinematic proportions. It has a cast of 61 actors, singers, and dancers, who together wear about 500 costumes and 300 pairs of shoes and boots (not to mention 402 hats, caps, bandannas, and hair bows). There is a 20-person orchestra. The main set, the Cotton Blossom show boat itself, measures 25 feet tall, 5 feet wide, and 40 feet long. Eight computers control the scenery and lighting changes through 22 miles of steel cable, 17.5 miles of electric cable, and 2 miles of computer cable. The performers are amplified by 83 microphones and 120 sound speakers.

At Signature, the cast of seven performs on a set consisting of three small platforms and seven matched chairs. They are accompanied by four musicians (including the musical director on piano) and sing without amplification devices. Except for a few novelty accessories, the performers wear the same simple, dark-and-earth-tone costumes throughout the 90-minute show. Lighting is simple, stark, and dramatic.

Even though Signature's production is a revue -- covering Sondheim's first 25 years as a professional composer and lyricist -- it is typical of Sondheim musicals. Only Follies (1971) approaches Show Boat in sheer size, and that should come as no surprise. After all, Follies was meant as a (serious) pastiche of the kind of spectacles produced by legendary impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, who produced the original Show Boat in 1927. In historical scope, the closest comparison to Show Boat's 40-year time period might be Sondheim's Pacific Overtures (1976), but even that comparison would be strained. More generally, Sondheim musicals rely on a much smaller cast within the constraints of a more manageable time period. (Exceptions can be found, of course. Sunday in the Park with George [1984] sets its first act and second act 100 years apart. Merrily We Roll Along [1981] traces the lives of three close friends over a 25-year period.)

The seven actors in A Stephen Sondheim Evening are perfectly suited to sing Sondheim's difficult music and intelligent lyrics. Each of them -- Jean Cantrell, Donna Migliaccio, Judy Simmons, Daniel Felton, Gregg Glaviano, Lawrence Redmond, and Matthew Shepard -- has extensive experience performing in previous Sondheim shows (as well as other musicals, operas, and non-musical plays). Signature's black-box theatre possesses a special intimacy that permits tremendous nuance in delivery -- from the sotto voce "Being Alive" sung by Simmons to a bombastic medley of songs (both used and discarded) from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962).

Show Boat is a different animal entirely. Director Harold Prince -- who was also a longtime collaborator of Stephen Sondheim's -- has consolidated a wide variety of different versions of Show Boat, from the original production of 1927 through the second movie version of 1936 to the 1946 Broadway revival as well as London productions and music and lyrics set aside by the creators during tryouts in Washington in the late autumn of 1927. Drawing upon scholarly research that in the late 1970s and early 1980s followed the discovery of the original scripts and scores (which were presumed lost) in Warner Brothers' New Jersey warehouse in 1977, Prince has been able to recreate what will long be known as the definitive Show Boat.

With a 1990s sensibility, Prince has been true to the intentions of the creators -- not only lyricist Hammerstein and composer Jerome Kern, but also Edna Ferber, the novelist who wrote the story upon which the play is based -- while eliminating some awkward and unnecessary moments. He has renewed an emphasis on the sorry state of race relations in the years between 1880 and 1930. At the same time, he has failed to eliminate (or at least soften the improbability of) several remarkable -- almost Dickensian -- coincidences that take place in the second act and drive the plot forward. Perhaps he tried but gave up because, despite the unbelievability of five major characters "accidentally" running into each other in Chicago on New Year's Eve 1899-1900, to change this facet of the play would require a wholesale reworking of the plot.

Show Boat benefits from a tremendously talented ensemble, including Dean Jones (another Sondheim connection, the original Robert in Company [1970]) as Cap'n Andy, Oscar-winning actress Cloris Leachman as his shrewish wife, Parthy (spelling the role recreated on Broadway in 1994 by Elaine Stritch, who also played Joanne with Jones in the original Company). Stand-outs include Gay Willis and Keith Buterbaugh as the lovers Magnolia and Gaylord Ravenal, Karen-Angela Bishop as the doomed mulatto Julie, and Jo Ann Hawkins White as Queenie. The entire production is undergirded by Kenneth Nichols' continuo as Joe, singing "Ol' Man River" in whole and in part several times during the show, linking the plot and the characters to the power and the glory of the troublesome but lifegiving Mississippi River, which despite everything "jes keeps rollin' along."

It is worth mentioning that five local youngsters -- Jeremiah West Ford, Samantha Glass, Brent Hudson, Nina Hudson, and Samantha Zavras -- supplement the ensemble of the Washington company of Show Boat in juvenile roles.

Show Boat represents the most successful venture so far by Canadian impresario Garth Drabinsky, who may be filling the role left empty by Florenz Ziegfeld's death almost sixty years ago. Together with his production of Ragtime (now playing at the National Theatre and the winner of four Tony Awards on June 7), his Livent (U.S.) Inc. demonstrates a unique capacity to present historically ambitious, spectacular musical plays.

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