Mr. Producer: Hang up Sondheim for a Weill

January 11, 2012

Steve Sondheim once said to me at a party, “I’m always surprised at what a good living I make out of theater, considering that I’ve never had a really big hit.” This is true; I’ve waited years to start a story with those words.

Firmly believing he was being disingenuous, I ran through the list of his successes: West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music and so on. One by one, he dismissed each show. “Well, I only did the lyrics for that one,” or “Oh, it only sold out for nine months,” or “It only ran for two years.”

Finally I asked him, “OK, what do you mean by ‘a really big hit?’” In dead earnest he replied, “A show that runs five years.”

Now, Stephen Sondheim always has been fully capable of writing a hummable, pastiche musical score typical of shows that do run for five years, with lyrics both funny and tender and stories both funny and tender, too. But he ALWAYS has refused to do it. He much, much prefers his emotions dry or at least obsessive, and his music complex and dry as well. To this day, in all the shows for which he’s written both music and lyrics, he’s yet to collaborate on a musical with a more-or-less normal romantic relationship at its core.

But he’s brilliant, right? Of course right. And he’s innovative and ambitious and monumentally influential. He stretched the boundaries of musical theater in the 1960’s and 1970’s and 1980’s and 1990’s as much as his great mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, did in the 1920’s through the 1950’s.

But Stephen Sondheim also is overdone. Just as I offered some New Year’s resolutions as a critic last week, this week I’m asking Chicago’s musical theater producers to resolve NOT TO PRODUCE A STEPHEN SONDHEIM SHOW IN 2012. Give Steve a rest, give us a break, hang Sondheim up for a year. Believe me, Stephen will get along just fine without any royalties from Chicago.

There are two reasons why I make this serious and solemn request. The first is that we don’t have a limitless supply of Sondheim’s best work, arguably about a dozen shows which have been done to death. In 2011 alone Chicago audiences saw brilliant productions of Sweeney Todd at the Drury Lane Theatre and Follies at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. We’re not likely to see better versions for years to come, if ever. In addition, there also were local productions of Merrily We Roll Along (Music Theatre Company), A Little Night Music (Circle Theatre), West Side Story (Sondheim lyrics, Broadway revival at the Cadillac Palace) and Putting It Together(a revue of Sondheim songs, Porchlight Music Theatre), and I’ve probably missed a few along the way. Once again in 2011, we saw more musicals by Stephen Sondheim than of any other composer. It’s time local musical producers stopped doing the same shows over and over again.

And that brings me to Reason Number Two: there is so much musical repertory that is being ignored; wonderful shows, classic musicals, challenging works of art, audience-pleasing shows . . . sometimes all of the above at the same time! Is it possible our local producers simply don’t know America’s musical theater heritage and repertory?

To begin with the obvious, how about the shows of the great composer/lyricist Frank Loesser? OK, everyone knows his Guys and Dolls (two productions last year) but few today know his very first Broadway musical, the delightful Where’s Charley?, based on the classic farce Charlie’s Aunt. To my certain knowledge, it hasn’t been produced professionally in Chicago in 40 years or more. Also, there is Loesser’s virtually-never-produced Greenwillow, his own personal favorite and his only Broadway failure, a rural fantasy work completely different in style and tone from Guys and Dolls or How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Loesser also wrote the remarkable The Most Happy Fella, with its Mozartian outpouring of melody. It’s been produced locally, but not since the mid-1980’s.

Another great, ignored Broadway composer is Kurt Weill. It’s been a very long time since any Chicago producer has tackled his Broadway shows such as Knickerbocker Holiday, The Firebrand of Florence or Lady in the Dark. In 1993—on my suggestion in a similar article—the Goodman Theatre did Weill’s profound Lost in the Stars but in an adaptation that significantly altered both the musical and dramatic content of the work. The real deal hasn’t been seen here in well over 50 years. Chicago director Gary Griffin staged a moving and exciting concert version of the show last year as part of the City Center Encore! Series in New York. He should be asked to do the same thing in Chicago. Are you reading this, Barbara Gaines?

The jazziest composer in the history of Broadway always was the late Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity, Little Me, The Life), and while many of his shows have been produced locally, there are many which have been too-long ignored such as Redhead, I Love My Wife, On the Twentieth Century and City of Angels. Let’s have a look at them.

Coleman worked with a string of lyricists and book writers, among them the late Dorothy Fields, whose work with other composers is long overdue for examination by local producers. With Arthur Schwartz, she wrote the sentimental musical, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with Coleman she authoredRedhead, with Irving Berlin and her brother (Herbert Fields) she partnered on Annie Get Your Gun, and with Cole Porter she co-authored the World War II musical Let’s Face It and also Mexican Hay Ride.

As for Cole Porter himself, why have we not seen Panama Hattie or Red, Hot and Blue or Dubarry Was a Lady? The books may be a bit creaky (well, a lot creaky) but they can be touched up a bit . . . or simply embrace their corniness and celebrate them as musical period pieces with glorious musical scores.

The truth is, Stephen Sondheim wouldn’t be Sondheim without the multifarious influences of his Broadway predecessors such as Porter and Berlin and Weill and Fields and Schwartz (not to mention Gershwin and Kern and Rodgers and Hammerstein), as well as his near-contemporaries such as Loesser and Coleman. So, Mr. Producer, give Steve a rest and celebrate the other bests of Broadway.