By David Loud
(original Broadway cast member, Merrily We Roll Along)
My previous shows at Lyrics and Lyricists were focused on two terrific composers who are not exactly household names: Burton Lane, who wrote several major Broadway scores but who never quite ascended into the Richard Rodgers/Irving Berlin/George Gershwin/ Cole Porter pantheon; and Vernon Duke, a sophisticated and virtually unknown artist who had flop after disappointing flop, despite the fact that each of his scores contained a few delicious songs. Both projects were the results of many months of research and arranging, and I loved doing them. For this season, series artistic director Deb Winer asked me if I wanted to do something a little less “off-the-beaten-path.” I suggested Sondheim, which she enthusiastically agreed to, noting how inappropriately long (15 years!) it has been since the last Sondheim program. I do love the fact that for the Lyrics & Lyricists audience, a Sondheim evening is considered more “mainstream.”
But … putting together an evening of Sondheim material has become almost impossible: the list of extraordinary songs that one wants to include is so long. No matter what, you’re going to leave out something great. Think about it: in 1977, when the first full-length Sondheim revue played on Broadway (Side by Side by Sondheim), he hadn’t yet written Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods or Passion.
So for this concert I decided just to focus on the years that he worked with Harold Prince, and to look at that remarkable collaboration.
From April 26, 1970, to November 28, 1981, New York City played host to one of the most extraordinary partnerships the theatre has ever known. The composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, working with director and producer Harold Prince, created a series of musicals unprecedented in their creativity, their craft, their variety and their vitality, starting with Company (1970), a bitterly witty and refeshingly adult look at the disconnect between love and marriage in contemporary New York City. Their partnership continued through Follies (1971), a massively ambitious, ghost-laden exploration of past and present; A Little Night Music (1973), a breezily rueful adaptation of an Ingmar Bergman film, swirling with waltzes and midsummer sexual tension; Pacfiic Overtures (1976), a startlingly original history of the westernization of Japan, inventively told using Asian theatrical techniques and vividly observed detail; Sweeney Todd (1979), a thrillingly musicalized elevation of a Victorian potboiler into a wildly funny and terrifying exposé of the British class system; and ending with Merrily We Roll Along (1981), jaunty and tuneful and heart-breakingly youthful, using an audacious reverse-chronology to tell its cautionary tale of friendships, betrayals and dreams gone awry.
The six scores for those shows are amazingly different from each other; it’s almost as if Sondheim is reinventing himself as the perfect composer for each of these particular projects. Harold Prince, more than any other director I can think of, was interested in doing things that had never been done before in musical theatre. These shows don’t live comfortably in existing styles; they create new styles, new forms, even new genres. Together, these artists redefined what a musical can be.
Photo: Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim in rehearsal for Merrily We Roll Along, 1981.
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