Welcome back to Musical Mondays!
In case you’re new here, this column is a peek into the depths of the Musical Theatre archive, where I will showcase a few musicals that I think deserve a little more love. You can read my past posts by clicking here!
They’re the smaller, niche shows that not everyone will be familiar with – and that’s the point! They deserve just as much love as the big name shows, so every second Monday I’ll list a few, give you some comparisons, and a few examples of songs for you to check out.
This fortnight showcases the work of Stephen Sondheim, who passed away on November 26th. A giant of the theatre industry, Sondheim’s work has been celebrated through the decades. But even so, some of his shows slip under the radar.
Passion is a one act musical about an affair between a young soldier and an older woman, taking place during war-torn Italy. It’s dark, intimate, and erotic, and has one of the most beautiful scores I have ever heard in a musical. It’s sweeping and dramatic, densely packed with musical motifs and Sondheim-isms. One of the reasons we don’t see this show staged often (much to my dismay) is that it not only is a difficult sing, but many of the characters are incredibly complex and intricate. Passion took out the Triple Crown (Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Original Score) at the 1994 Tony Awards, with Donna Murphy winning Best Actress for her portrayal of Fosca. It is definitely a more unconventional love story, but in typical Sondheim style, explores more brutal and human themes. And, of course, it is an absolute mammoth for performers.
Standout track/s: Happiness; I Wish I Could Forget You; Loving You
You’ll like this if you enjoy: The work of Sondheim,
Pacific Overtures tells the story of Japan’s forced westernisation through the perspective of those affected by it. A stark reminder of the affects of imperialism, the show is definitely one of Sondheim’s more openly critical works, one that was meticulously researched and openly challenges the U.S.’s penchant for invasion. He collaborated with bookwriter John Weidman to create the musical, leading to a long working relationship and resulted in their shows Assassins and Road Show. Pacific Overtures is often considered to be one of Sondheim’s more sophisticated works, with the music drawing on Japanese styles and the production coming with an impressive list of requirements. Sadly, because of this, it tends to be one of his least produced pieces of theatre. The show utilises Kabuki techniques, which is a classical Japanese dance/drama style, characterised by its highly stylised performance, costumes, and makeup. Further, the cast requires a large number of Asian men who must also play women, and then a further smaller women’s ensemble who come in towards the end of the show. Sondheim himself has said that “Someone in a Tree” is one of his favourite songs that he has ever written – which is saying something, given his body of work.
Standout track/s: Someone in a Tree; The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea
You’ll like this if you enjoy: The work of Sondheim, Kabuki Theatre, Musicals set in Asia such as Miss Saigon, Flower Drum Song, and Allegiance.
Evening Primrose is a movie musical with book by James Goldman and music and lyrics by Sondheim. We follow a young poet (played by Anthony Perkins) who hides in a department store after it closes. There he meets a group of people who have been living there for years, and they tell him about their lives – including the young Ella, a girl who has spent most of her life living within the confines of the store. It’s a quirky and unusual plot taken from a short story from the 1950s, but it makes for a lovely hour of viewing. There have been some staged productions of the show, but it was never intended to be a stage production. Evening Primrose features one of my favourite Sondheim songs of all time – “Take Me To The World,” and if you needed one reason to watch it that song along should be enough.
Standout track/s: I Remember; Take Me To The World
You’ll like this if you enjoy: The work of Sondheim, movie musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and Babes in Arms