Sondheim is probably the most well known and respected contemporary writer of musical theatre, and he has long been openly gay. Performed by five men as part of MELT 2017 at Brisbane Powerhouse, Boys of Sondheim is an exploration of the modern day jungle of relationships: from Grindr, to marriage, to breakups.
The show started with the politically punchy ‘Everybody’s Got the Right (to be happy)’ from Assassins– isn’t it sad that message is political and controversial these days?
It then delved into the deeply personal, with songs that explore our neuroses; ‘Buddies Blues’ (Follies), ‘Getting Married Today (Company); our passions ‘Not While I’m Around’ (Sweeney Todd), ‘Send in the Clowns’ (A Little Night Music), ‘I Feel Pretty’ (West Side Story); and our fears in ‘Unworthy of Your Love’ (Assassins), and ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ (Follies). While these songs were written for straight (or unspecified) characters, they translated very well to same sex relationships- which isn’t surprising since, as Lin-Manuel Miranda said at last year’s Tony Awards, “love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love”.
The design of the show was schmick, understated and elegant. It had the dark, smoky, piano-in-the-corner look of a classic cabaret. Lighting seamlessly transformed the space from intimate interiors of people’s homes, to far more public bars and even a church.
Dominic Woodhead’s music direction was excellent (as was his piano playing)- the deceptively simple mix of piano, sax, clarinet and double bass kept the integrity of Sondheim’s music while leaving the emphasis on the vocals. All the vocal performances were strong, but standouts were Sean Andrews with ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ and Stephen Hirst with ‘Getting Married Today’.
Overall, I did really enjoy the show. I love Sondheim in any situation and it was a rare treat to see songs from shows like Dick Tracy, Follies, Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park with George that we do not often get to see live in Brisbane.
However. I wanted to enjoy it more. So much of my life has been spent listening to these songs – I happily admit I am a Sondheim tragic. His ability to make songs into a natural, everyday form of expression, and the way his lyrics can be surprising, funny, insightful and heartbreaking all at once get to me just listening to his soundtracks. So it’s safe to say my expectations were high and I wanted to be moved by the performances. At times the show left me wanting the emotional connection with the music that I craved, particularly during some of my usual favourites, ‘Being Alive’ (Company), ‘The Little Things You Do Together’ (Company) and ‘Could I Leave You’ (Follies), which lacked their hilarious, caustic sarcasm. To be fair, I don’t know how much of this was down to the fact that I was seeing these songs out of the context I am so familiar with.
Boys of Sondheim was a night of great music that was well executed, stylish and fun- with just the right amount of raunch.