Monday, January 28, 2013

Marry Me a Little: The Sondheim Jukebox Musical

Phil Tayler and Erica Spyres in Marry Me A Little at the New Repertory Theatre (Photo by Andrew Brilliant)

A jukebox musical is constructed around the pre-existing catalogue of a composer or a songwriting team or a musical group. The English phenomenon Mamma Mia! popularized the genre – and it remains the prime example of all that’s wrong with it. The plot, a loose reimagining of an Eduardo De Filippo comedy that also had a brief life as an Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane Broadway musical called Carmelina, is gathered around hit songs by the rock group ABBA; you could say the songs are thumbtacks holding up the story. But since they weren’t written to express the emotions of the characters or to define them – the two main purposes of songs in a conventional musical – the show lurches every time it comes to a stop at a number because the lyrics don’t really fit the dramatic situation. For that reason the most successful jukebox musicals are revues like Smoky Joe’s Café (which features the songs of Leiber and Stoller), where the book doesn’t have to justify the songs. (Jersey Boys has mistakenly been called a juxebox musical; in fact, it’s a particularly uninspired version of the musical biography that we’re familiar with mostly through movies like Lady Sings the Blues, The Buddy Holly Story and Ray. Musical bios are backstage musicals – that is, the songs are performed by characters who are professional musicians, so they aren’t meant to stylize the feelings of those characters.)

The little-known 1981 Marry Me a Little is the earliest jukebox musical I’m aware of, and its musical selection is unorthodox. So is its form: it’s a revue with a narrative; that is, there’s no dialogue. (You might also call it a through-sung jukebox musical.) Craig Lucas and Norman René raided Stephen Sondheim’s songbook for obscure tunes that had been cut from his shows or that he’d written for projects that never got off the ground, and split them between two characters (played by Lucas and Suzanne Henry) exploring their mostly romantic feelings as they sit alone in their separate Manhattan apartments. Revived off Broadway last fall with one new addition to the score – “Rainbows,” which Sondheim wrote for an intended movie version of Into the WoodsMarry Me a Little no longer had the cachet of bringing to light unknown Sondheim songs, since so many have been recorded since and included in revues; it’s safe to say that no musical theatre composer’s oeuvre has been so thoroughly mined for hidden treasures since Cole Porter’s or George Gershwin’s. And “Happily Ever After,” one of Sondheim’s two discarded efforts to find a finale for Company before he hit on “Being Alive” (the other being “Marry Me a Little”), has been restored to the score in recent revivals.

Brad Daniel Peloquin  (Photo by Andrew Brilliant)
I didn’t see Marry Me a Little in 1981 (though I’ve heard the original cast album) and I didn’t catch the retread in the fall, so I can’t comment on how well or badly the use of the songs works in Lucas and René’s made-up narrative. In Boston it’s being performed at the New Repertory Theatre in a new version directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins with four singers, two men and two women, whose apartments either abut or tower over each other’s in Erik Diaz’s complicated set. Here, though the characters remain isolated from each other on stage, most of the eighteen songs are duets that seem to suggest either a relationship between two of them or an emotional overlap between their circumstances. And I’m afraid I found it almost entirely baffling. At the outset the two men, one middle-aged (Brad Daniel Peloquin) and one in his twenties (Phil Tayler), appear to be in a relationship; at least, that’s how I read their two duets, “Can That Boy Foxtrot” (the song that Yvonne De Carlo sang during the Boston run of Follies, before Sondheim replaced it with the celebrated anthem “I’m Still Here”) and “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (another Follies discard, which aficionados will recognize as the genesis of that show’s striking, minor-key overture). About halfway through the show, however, Man 2 (Peloquin) and Woman 2 (Aimee Doherty) sing “Your Eyes Are Blue” (cut from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), which hints at an un-acted-on romance between them. We don’t hear any more about the affair between the two men – including any implication that it broke up – though they get together again on “Pour Le Sport” (from an unproduced show called The Last Resorts), which is clearly written for a pair of middle-aged women of substantial means. Woman 1 (Erica Spyres) has no narrative arc at all, so her numbers just seem like art songs.

No doubt I’m being too literal-minded, but I sat through the entire 70-minute musical without having any idea what the hell I was supposed to think was going on between any two of these characters or inside any one of them. The four performers are game and they all know how to put over their numbers; the two women have lovely voices, and Spyres can also play the violin. Some of the songs, like the title tune from Saturday Night, Sondheim’s first musical (unproduced in 1981, but it’s since entered the musical-theatre repertoire – and it’s a charmer), are extremely well performed – in this case, by Doherty and Peloquin. But the show, at least in this incarnation, is a real head-scratcher. After the curtain calls, the quartet reprises “Happily Ever After” and pretends they’re offering an upbeat, hopeful finale. Actually “Happily Ever After” is one of the most cynical relationship songs Sondheim ever wrote; the fact that the singers try their best to eliminate the sardonic tone just sounds weird when it’s right there in the lyrics. They might just as well have wrapped up the show with “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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