Theatre yesterday and today



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These are certainly uncertain times. And with so little to be sure of (as a wise composer-lyricist once offered), it is with some degree of certainty that I can point to this particular wise man as someone who has given us gifts beyond measure in his ninety years on earth. Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim.

Had Broadway not gone dark eleven days ago, there would have been two Sondheim musicals running on Broadway to help celebrate his 90th birthday today: revivals of his first produced show (West Side Story, for which he provided lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music) and Company, which changed everything for Sondheim personally, as well as the American musical forever.

When it opened in 1970, no one had ever seen a musical quite like Company. Its impassioned music and brilliant lyrics were the driving force of the production and Sondheim was suddenly (after thirteen years on Broadway) a wholly new force to be reckoned with. His score broke new ground and sounded like no other. And when in collaboration with director Harold Prince, they banged out Follies and A Little Night Music the following two seasons, it was clear that a new era was well underway for the Broadway musical. For better or for worse (and there are those who’ll argue it was for worse, though not I), the theatre would never be the same again. A revolution had begun — and it was scored by Stephen Sondheim.

Dean Jones and the original cast of Company (1970).

I was there at the revolution, albeit just a teenager. I saw Company at age thirteen from the last row of the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) for a cost of $2 that I bought myself with the proceeds of my paper route. I saw Follies a year later, the afternoon before it opened, and was overwhelmed by its physical beauty and the size and scope of its production. A Little Night Music was a revelation (and again, it only cost me $2), as it was certainly the most elegant musical I had seen up to that point. That the man who scored such a totally New York musical as Company could also produce the European beauty that was the sound of A Little Night Music (with the extraordinary pastiche of Follies in between) was an achievement — in just three years — I’m not sure we will ever see again. And those casts! Incomparable! And the invaluable contributions from Prince, Michael Bennett, George Furth, James Goldman, Hugh Wheeler, Boris Aronson, Tharon Musser, Florence Klotz, Patricia Birch, Ruth Mitchell, and all the other wildly talented craftspeople involved, made for productions that will live in my heart and mind forever. And naturally, I’m not the only one. People speak of them in hushed (and not so hushed) reverence for good reason: revivals will come and go, but these originals will never be topped. They can’t be, mainly for the specific reason that much of the material was crafted to the actors performing them in ways that made them invaluable and unique to the process. “Send in the Clowns” was written specifically for Glynis Johns’ voice. Had the part been cast with say, Julie Andrews, the song would have been completely different. And yes, others will play Desire beautifully and sing “Send in the Clowns” to break your heart… but there was nothing like seeing and hearing Glynis Johns act and perform it. Nothing.

Glynis Johns and Len Cariou in A Little Night Music (1973).

But these three shows were hardly all Sondheim had to offer in the 1970s. Two years after Night Music came Pacific Overtures, and it was stunning.Again, no one had ever seen anything like it. It features one of Sondheim’s very best scores and it was ravishing to take in visually. I’ll never forget seeing it, especially the runway that was built in the Winter Garden, echoing when Al Jolson used it for his musicals back in the 1920s. And by the end of the 1970s, could the decade have concluded any better for Sondheim and Prince than with Sweeney Todd, rightly claimed as Sondheim’s one true masterpiece? And not to beat a dead horse, but there will never be another production like the original at the Uris (now the Gershwin), with its Eugene Lee set that cobbled together pieces of an actual 19th century iron foundry. And in Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, it had artists at the peak of their powers delivering performances that had to be seen to be believed. And oh how I would play that two-record set (yes, records!) in my first New York City apartment that I moved into the year of its opening: 1979. Surely my new neighbors suffered, enduring the factory whistle whenever it blew.