Imagine spending an evening stuck in a one-room apartment with a couple on the skids, a man and woman who never had much chemistry in the first place – and who, now, never stop nattering at each other while never really listening to one another.
And, worst of all, these two are Stephen Sondheim fans.
That’s Marry Me A Little, the Sondheim revue masquerading as musical theatre currently playing at the Tarragon Theatre. The show’s score is cobbled together from the great American composer-lyricist’s rarities (tunes from Saturday Night, written in 1954, and Evening Primrose, a 1966 musical created for TV), B-sides (songs cut from Company and Follies) and even one never-before-heard outtake (Rainbows, removed from the upcoming Into the Woods movie).
In Marry Me A Little’s original 1980 version – created by Craig Lucas and Norman René – the man and woman singing these songs lived alone, in side-by-side studio apartments. Since then, other versions have been staged with up to four actors.
For this production, director Adam Brazier has come up with a completely different idea. Adrian Marchuk plays an unnamed man who seems to be a composer, and Elodie Gillett plays a woman who seems to be a singer. In a extended flashback, we watch them go through a relationship, from excited beginnings to blissful domesticity to a parade of bittersweet breakups (Sondheim’s speciality).
Brazier’s attempt to link the songs into a coherent story fails, since the characters shift class, time period and context from one song to the next. And his attempts to paper over the cracks between what’s being sung and what’s being shown are – like a bad Sondheim imitator – all cleverness and no depth.
For instance, Marchuk will occasionally sing a song as if his character is writing it in that moment – and then marvel at his own lyrical ingenuity, the surest way to kill a tune. Gillett, meanwhile, will often carry a sheet of paper while singing the lyrics for the first time, then furrow her brow as if, say, Uptown, Downtown – a song cut from Follies – has something meaningful to say about their relationship.
My brow furrowed most deeply when Gillett’s character sang the title song Marry Me A Little – originally sung by perpetual bachelor Bobby in 1970’s Company – to Marchuk, and then Marchuk sang Happily Ever After – an earlier, bleaker version of Bobby’s Being Alive – to her. These are songs from the same fictional mind and are not contradictory, but Brazier stages them as if this is the musical fight that breaks them up.
Here’s the paradox about Sondheim. He is the greatest living proponent of integrated musical theatre in its purest form – he has written that his songs are meant to be sung “in particular musicals by individual characters in specific situations.” He doesn’t believe in the “take-away song” that can be divorced easily from its context – which is why his only top-40 hit is Send in the Clowns, a tune that, notably, no one understands.
At the same time, however, Sondheim’s fans are so rabid that there are countless revues that take his songs out of context like this. The best approach is to treat each tune as a one-act play, and the numbers in Brazier’s production that work include the opening Saturday Night, with Gillett and Marchuk singing to themselves, and Can That Boy Foxtrot!, in which we are moved into a fantasy world of cabaret.
For the most part, however, Brazier goes for overly busy kitchen-sink realism – and his two actors are constantly tidying up the room, moving cushions around, making tea or getting beer from the fridge in their Lululemon bottoms and pyjama pants. Maybe not everybody ought to have a maid, but these two certainly could use one, so they can simply sing their songs.
Marry Me A Little may please Sondheim fans eager to hear the worst songs by their great hero. But, at least in Brazier’s version, it is a Sondheim show that Sondheim himself would hate.
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