A Sondheim Triptych: Saturday Night; Merrily We Roll Along

To celebrate the 80th birthday of the music theatre legend Stephen Sondheim, Melbourne music theatre champions Magnormos have chosen three of his lesser celebrated works to be performed concert style over three consecutive Mondays.

Magnormos and Melbourne Recital Centre
Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday 20 & 27 September 2010 

To celebrate the 80th birthday of the music theatre legend Stephen Sondheim, Melbourne music theatre champions Magnormos have chosen three of his lesser celebrated works to be performed concert style over three consecutive Mondays.

The first two of these, Saturday Night (1953) and Merrily We Roll Along (1981) are clever choices that demonstrate Sondheim’s progression from a very good but still developing songwriter to arguably the most important theatre creator of his time – having found the way to communicate important ideas through the generally frivolous medium of the musical.

Saturday Night was to be Sondheim’s Broadway debut as a songwriter, but owing to the untimely death of the producer, its New York opening was delayed until the year 2000. It could be argued that this was no great loss to the world of musicals. The book (by Julius and Phillip Epstein) is thin, dealing with a group of young men on a succession of Saturday nights in Brooklyn just prior to the Great Crash of 1929. One of them, Gene, is swept away by the dream of a win on the stock market: after losing his gang’s money in a series of escalating financial disasters Gene is saved, both fiscally and morally, through the love of the pure and beautiful Helen.

Despite the insubstantial plot, the musical is charming, communicating a naive youthful exuberance existing in a less complicated era. Sondheim’s talent is evident in the many songs –  more lyrical and not as  seamlessly integrated   in  the piece as in his later works, but already bursting with inventive (and seemingly endless) witty rhymes.

For this semi-staged rendition the young but talented cast coped well with the occasionally required use of scripts, Brooklyn accents, and the brave (in these times) decision to go unamplified. Accompanied subtly by the upstage combo of piano, bass and drums, the cast were mostly audible in the extraordinary acoustic of the Recital Centre, though too much dialogue was lost thorough a naturalistic delivery, often aimed upstage. Underlining the change in acting styles and vocal technique since the introduction of body microphones, it was refreshing to hear voices au naturale for a change; but I would have preferred to see this old-school musical delivered in the old-school way: out front!

As all of the performers were wonderful it seems unfair to single out anyone for praise, but my favourites were the radiant Claire George (Helen), with her sweet and perfect singing; the big – voiced, comically gifted Montana Perrin (Mildred); and Andrew Strano (Dino) who epitomized the slightly OTT performance style required for this form of theatre.

Merrily We Roll Along, written some 28 years later, is Sondheim at the height of his powers as composer and lyricist. A musical for grownups, it combines themes of friendship, artistic compromise and the high price of success, with social commentary on the changing world of politics, relationships and ambivalence in love.

Literally turning dramatic convention on its head, Merrily We Roll Along starts in 1980 and through a series of scenes cycles backwards in time to 1957. Once a talented Broadway composer, successful Hollywood producer Franklin Shepard (Chris Parker) contemplates the ruin of his marriages and his dearest friendships – through the series of flashbacks we see Frank’s life as it unravelled, ending back at his idealistic youth with best friends Charlie (Stephen Wheat), his collaborator and librettist, and Mary (Laura Fitzpatrick), a novelist with an unrequited love for Frank.

What makes Merrily We Roll Along such a good match for Saturday Night is the way Sondheim uses it as a sort of retrospective of his own career. Songs appearing full-fledged earlier in the evening are reprised in less well developed form as we travel backward through time, culminating in an hilarious scene when Broadway producer Joe berates Frank for the lack of melody in his songs, and we’re treated to a clumsy work-in progress version of “What more do I need?”, the finale to Saturday Night.

Other musical highpoints are the song “Not a day goes by”, sung by Beth (Lisa-Marie Parker) with gut wrenching anguish when her marriage to Frank disintegrates, then reprised with joy as Beth marries Frank some years earlier, with alternating verses sung with regretful longing by Mary; Stephen Wheat’s brilliant, show-stopping rendition of “Franklin Shepard inc.”; and  the clever “Bobby and Jackie and Jack”, presented for a 1960 review, another example of Frank’s yet to be fully realised genius.

The semi-staged production, beautifully directed by Shaun Murphy, used at centre stage a scaled down band (with a synthesiser standing in for the string section), and a “set” of two risers and a few bent wood chairs. Projections on the back wall of the theatre filled us in on where and when we were as we travelled back through time. This time the performers were miked – which, until the levels were sorted out toward the end of the first act, meant that again some dialogue was lost to too-fast, poorly articulated upstage delivery.

Which is the only small criticism I can muster up about the night. Casting was impeccable – the three central characters played by Parker, Wheat and Fitzpatrick, were all superb, and supported by an equally good cast of principals and ensemble. Throw in some very g-roovy moves and an audience absolutely determined to celebrate, and you’ve got a great night out.

The Sondheim Triptych concludes on Monday 4 October with Anyone Can Whistle.

bookings: www.melbournerecital.com.au


Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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