Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Sondheim Weekend

Why would a theater company, utilizing a small performing space seating only 300 persons, choose to amplify both singers and orchestra in the presentation of a classic Broadway musical?

That was the question my parents and Joshua and I asked ourselves over and over Friday night before last while attending a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” at the McKnight Theatre in Saint Paul.

Amplification seriously marred the show. The amplification was too loud, created balance problems between instrumentalists and singers, rendered lyrics unintelligible—and destroyed intimacy between audience and stage.

Intimacy should have been one of the prime attractions of this particular “Company” production, offered, as it was, in a venue of suitable size. During every single musical number in the show, audience members had to stiffen themselves in their seats while being blasted with wave after wave of high-volume artificial sound.

Whenever a musical is amplified, in any space, there is an evitable “canned” quality to the presentation. Performers might as well be miming to a prerecorded version of the show, given that the sound arrives via a sound system of fixed placement and not directly and personally from the performer’s voice to the listener’s ear.

Had we known, in advance, that this particular production of “Company” was to be amplified, we would have skipped the production entirely. (The reviews in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Saint Paul Pioneer-Press had failed to mention that the show was amplified—and, as a result, we never for a moment had contemplated that amplification was a possibility until we arrived in the theater.)

In many ways, “Company”, from 1970, is a remarkable musical. The musical numbers represent Sondheim in his early prime, with an alarming number of first-rate songs (along with a handful of very undistinguished ones). George Furth’s book is superb. It is one of the finest of all books for a musical, and has held up beautifully after forty-two years.

Considered by some to be the first “concept” musical, “Company” remains a vital and intriguing work, especially if one dispenses with the original orchestrations, as outdated and jarring as hairdos from the period (the original “Company” orchestrations are generally discarded these days, as was the case in Saint Paul).

The Saint Paul production was a presentation of Theater Latte Da, a company whose work we tend to ignore. Theater Latte Da presents numerous musicals and—last weekend to the contrary—we generally avoid musicals.

The production was notable solely for its direction. The director was Peter Rothstein—and Rothstein’s work was exceptional. I have come to believe that Rothstein may be one of the finest directors working in town.

Rothstein’s “Company” was very cinematic, very fluid, very fast-moving. Characters flew on- and offstage all night, yet the production was always perfectly logical and perfectly lucid and perfectly coherent (given the pacing, one might have expected confusion on the part of the audience). Rothstein achieved this logic, lucidity and coherency with lighting, color, space and projections, redefining and reconfiguring the stage platform all night to suit the needs of a well-told story. I cannot recall the last time I saw a musical in which the direction was so clear and so confident and so controlled.

The cast members were nothing to write home about. Unless one is to adopt provincial standards, not one member of the cast gave a memorable or accomplished performance. In fact, the cast of the Saint Paul “Company” would have been laughed off the stage in New York. We were amazed, given what we witnessed, that both local newspapers had lavished praise on this particular cast.

Despite the amplification and the unimpressive actors, by and large we enjoyed the production—perhaps more than we should have, based upon the merits.

The production was a mixture of the very bad and very good. The choreography was lame. The stage design was minimal, and mostly abstract, and not at all handsome. The costume design was quite poor, by far the worst element of the show. Yet through a bold, colorful lighting design and the skillful use of projections, the director turned a bare-stage, essentially-unattractive physical production into a satisfying visual experience.

We have had occasion to admire Rothstein’s work before. Rothstein directed last season’s new Minnesota Opera production of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte”. That “Cosi”, from a pure directorial standpoint, had been one of the finest opera productions I have ever seen, in Europe or North America (the musical presentation had not been at the same high level). Never before had I witnessed a “Cosi” production so natural, so graceful, so eloquent.

Rothstein does not always work wonders. In 2007, Rothstein had directed a Guthrie Theater production of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” that in no way had reflected credit upon The Guthrie.

“Company”, excellent as is its score and book, has never proven to be a commercial success.

And I think I know why.

The central character is a blank. There is no “center” to Bobby. Bobby exists in order for everyone else onstage to play off him and to play against him, but Bobby has no core. Bobby is an abstract construct, a mere foundation for Shavian argument; he is nowise a flesh-and-blood character. The audience knows no more about Bobby at the end of the musical than at the beginning—and this is so even though the entire musical has been nothing but an intensive examination of Bobby’s relationships, romantic and otherwise.

When, at the end of “Company”, Bobby sings “Being Alive”, perhaps the finest song of the score, one has no clue whether Bobby is being sincere or ironic. Arguments may be assembled, based upon evidence presented earlier in the musical, to establish that Bobby is a loner, or gay, or a kook, or a sociopath, or the victim of a multiple personality disorder—yet there is little evidence to suggest that Bobby is a sympathetic, well-rounded, warm and admirable human being.

In Bobby, Sondheim very well may have created a portrait of himself: inscrutable, undemonstrative, unfettered and ungrounded, a man with a sharp mind but an indifferent—and perhaps even callous—heart.

And it is the indifferent and inscrutable nature of the central character that may account for the fact that such a brilliant musical has never been popular with the public.

At the conclusion of “Company”, the audience leaves the theater with profound respect for the craft demonstrated by Sondheim and Furth.

But the audience leaves the theater unmoved.


On Sunday afternoon, Joshua and I took my mother and my sister-in-law to Bloomington to see Bloomington Civic Theatre’s production of Sondheim’s “Sunday In The Park With George”.

Bloomington’s “Sunday” was everything Saint Paul’s “Company” was not: the show was beautifully designed, with gorgeous—and complicated—stage settings and meticulous period costumes; the original complete orchestrations were used, played by a full orchestra; a large—and handsome—cast was on hand; and amplification was not in use, despite the larger size of the Bloomington theater (which seats just under 500 persons).

We thought the production was superb; it was one of the finest productions we have ever experienced at Bloomington Civic Theatre. In fact, the Bloomington production of “Sunday” was better than a Shaw Festival production of “Sunday” Josh and I had seen in 2009.

The first act of “Sunday In The Park With George” is a near-perfect work of art. Opera companies should mount Act I of “Sunday In The Park With George” as an independent one-act opera, and pair it with Act I of Sondheim’s “Into The Woods”, also a near-perfect work of art that would work splendidly as a one-act opera.

Act II of “Sunday” is a major letdown, just as Act II of “Into The Woods” is an unsatisfying follow-up to Act I of that show. I know what Sondheim was getting at in Act II of “Sunday”, but Act II simply does not work. The book of Act II is unfocused and uninspired (plus there are long and tedious stretches of dialogue) and the musical numbers—a couple of which are quite good—seem to be dropped in as afterthought.

I have always wondered why Sondheim does not attempt to revise his creations. He surely knows that Acts II of “Sunday” and “Woods” would benefit from revision.

One Sondheim work particularly cries out for reworking: “Pacific Overtures”.

“Pacific Overtures”, infrequently staged, has the makings of a magnificent piece of theater. Its chief defects are that it changes tone two-thirds of the way through Act I, and changes tone a second time one-third of the way through Act II. In both cases, the changes of tone puzzle the audience.

“Pacific Overtures” would receive frequent performances in opera houses if Sondheim were to divide the show into three acts and add two or three new musical numbers.

The first act should focus solely on the American arrival in Japan, and end with “Welcome To Kanagawa”. The second act should be a strict look back at that cataclysmic event from the Japanese perspective, opening with “Someone In A Tree” and ending with “Please Hello”. The third act should be a sweeping rush forward from the 1850s to the present, and still end with the under-appreciated “Next”.

Sondheim would have to write a new number for the second act in order to give the act a satisfying shape, and he would have to write one or even two new numbers for the third act, but doing so would surely be a worthwhile exercise.

“Pacific Overtures” may be Sondheim’s single finest score. It has never had the exposure it deserves—and, in the commercial theater, it never shall have the exposure it deserves. The future of “Pacific Overtures” lies in the opera house, and the score and book need to be amended, tailored—and extended—for opera house performance.

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