Review: Surprise, surprise by Sondheim
Monday 22 December 1997
When they get round to staging Stephen Sondheim's laundry lists, you can rest assured that the aforesaid will be the wittiest and most intricately rhymed patter songs that you've ever heard. As lists, they will be threaded through with a mordant sense of the urban alienation of a single person who would rather send his smalls out to a firm than have a significant other wash them with her (or, one suspects, his) own fair hands. Oh, those 20th Century blues.
I scoff not. Sondheim is a composer/lyricist whose outtakes are often more interesting than the in-tray of many of his counterparts. Last year, the Bridewell Theatre gave us Marry Me A Little, Sondheim's sweepings swept (by others) into a somewhat makeshift musical revue about a girl and a guy alone in separate apartments on a Saturday night. A handful of the songs in that piece derive from the show that Carol Metcalfe, the Bridewell's enterprising artistic director, now gives its world premier.
Completed in 1954, should have been Sondheim's professional debut in musical theatre. It has a late1920s setting, a droll book (by the Oscar-winning authors of Casablanca) based on their own Front Porch In Flatbush and it focuses on a group of young Brooklyners experiencing the luxurious anxieties of status - and dating-problems in the period just before the stock-market crash put paid to this relative innocence.
Metcalfe's well-cast production brings out the charm and wit of the piece, but you can see why (a) producers weren't stampeding to stage this show and why (b) Leonard Bernstein was sufficiently impressed by its verbal dexterities to want to pull in Sondheim as lyricist for West Side Story. The stock-market runner hero (attractive Sam Newman), a Brooklyn boy disguised in a Brooks Brothers' tail-suit, dreams of a life in Sutton Place, all "robes and peignoirs/And purchased Renoirs" and that "purchased" sums up with a lively comic concision, the lower-middle-class naivety of his admiration for the toff life. A desperately protracted but desultory plot, involving loan sharks and appropriation of syndicate funds, shows how his once also-aspiring girlfriend, Helen (a nicely quirky Anna Francolini) educates him in the value of what he's got.
The show has something of the blithe, delightful innocuosness of a 1920s musical by George and Ira Gershwin, though without the former's standard of melodic invention. This is a world of sharp-eyed but affectionate urban observation and sensibility (instanced in the song "What More Do I Need" where there's the lovely realism of "The dust Is thick and it's galling/It simply can't be excused/In winter even the falling/snow looks used"); It's also the world of suburban pastoral. The talent for structuring a song like the excellent "Exhibit A" about the various props a guy needs to seduce a gal, far outweighs, though, the talent for structuring an entire musical. For example, by the time we get to the jokey anthem is praise of Brooklyn values, which sounds like a rousing start-up song, people have been glancing at their watches for quite a while.
You'd never guess from this 'prentice piece that, thematically, Sondheim would go on to become an obsessive dissector of obsession; then again, Two Gentleman of Verona gives you no clue to Othello. Highly diverting, though.
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