Send in the Songs
Somewhere between writing dialogue for the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story and creating Sunday in the Park with George, the only Broadway show to date based on an Impressionist painting, Stephen Sondheim revolutionized American musical theater. Inspired by the elaborate story musicals of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein and the intimate dramas of Bertolt Brecht, Sondheim has written songs about theater people (Gypsy, Follies), a musical that kissed up to opera (Sweeney Todd), theater about fairy tales (Into the Woods), even a show about violence (Assassins), to name just a few of his groundbreaking works. But Broadway's last true composer was never more endearing than when he scribbled the opening bars and the lyrics for a show based on the works of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus: "Something familiar, something peculiar. Something for everyone. Comedy tonight."
The familiar (and peculiar) lyrics that opened the 1962 show A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum are also the curtain raisers in Side by Side by Sondheim, the Harold Prince-devised revue now getting a lively, affectionate revival at the Broward Stage Door Theatre. A show that celebrates the early years of the composer-lyricist, Side by Side features some 30 songs -- 50, if you include the 20 or so more represented by a few bars each in "Conversation Piece," a pastiche of Sondheim numbers that ends the show. Included throughout are familiar and a few not-so-familiar songs from A Funny Thing, Gypsy, A Little Night Music, Company, Evening Primrose, Follies, Anyone Can Whistle, Do I Hear a Waltz?, West Side Story, Pacific Overtures, and the film Seven Per-Cent Solution.
At the Broward Stage Door, artistic director Dan Kelley (who directs this show with a confident and intelligent hand) and cofounder/co-executive director Dee Bunn join the cast, which also includes South Florida artistic handyman John Fionte and vocal powerhouse Connie Salutos. The foursome delivers duets, solos, ensemble pieces, and a parody of the Andrew Sisters featuring Fionte as one of the girls. All four spin through multiple, quick costume changes that outfit them in tuxes and eveningwear, not to mention a low-key but sexy getup of sequins and light bulbs for Bunn, who has the last word in "Gotta Get a Gimmick," the defense-of-burlesque song from Gypsy. The stage is decorated with oversize reproductions of the posters for Sondheim shows represented here. Amid them sit two pianists (musical director Larry Host and Toni Stamos) who provide rousing and occasionally arousing accompaniment.
I think Sondheim would approve. At any rate he'd certainly appreciate this talented company, that, among other things, reasserts his claim as a composer whose songs are limber, versatile, and innovative enough to invite reinvention by a great number of voices. The composer may have originally written many of these numbers for Elaine Stritch, Barbara Cook, and Lee Remick, the thoroughbred interpreters of the Broadway songbook, but, in the same way that no one really owns a Cole Porter tune, singers with as much confidence and pizzazz as the Broward Stage troupers can claim the songs for themselves.
That's what happens when Fionte sings "Being Alive," from Company. More a plea for love than a love song, it's a fine showcase for Fionte's voice, well-toned and warm and strong. The song isn't one of Sondheim's best-known. In fact the justification for presenting a Sondheim showcase is that the composer wrote and/or scored almost as many commercial failures (Follies, Anyone Can Whistle, Merrily We Roll Along, Pacific Overtures) in his early years as hits (A Funny Thing, Company, A Little Night Music). Most of us know "A Boy Like That," the sassy mother-daughter duet from West Side Story, sung here by Bunn and Salutos, or "Love Is in the Air," the delicate ballad from A Funny Thing. But the peppy and clever "Can That Boy Foxtrot" from Follies, despite the show's seven Tony Awards, is not that familiar to most of us because it was cut from the show in Boston. (Sample lyrics: "His mother's mean./He's not too clean. What makes him look brilliant/Is the brilliantine. But boy, can that boy foxtrot.")
In fact, Side by Side is something of a mausoleum of works from Follies, Sondheim's 1971 piece about a reunion of retired Ziegfeld girls, who talk about their disillusionment, their careers, and the end of the follies' theatrical tradition. In this anthology we get no fewer than eight songs from the show. Bunn gets the best ones, delivering her own heartfelt anthem in a spirited version of "Broadway Baby," and carrying off the composer's dizzying lyrics to "Losing My Mind" with aplomb.
Less deserving of being preserved is "I Remember," a limp ballad from Evening Primose, although the presong patter -- explaining that the obscure show dealt with a society of hermits who go off to live in a department store -- was well worth including. I could also do without "I Never Do Anything Twice," a song written to be sung by the madam of a brothel in Seven Per-Cent Solution but shaved down to a few bars in the film. Although the song is based on a funny premise (the madam's taste for outrageousness makes her impatient with repetition, even of outrageous acts) and Salutos gives it a devilish whirl, as a musical proposition the song is sleep-inducing.
Sondheim magic aside, what makes this production work is the chemistry and the fine vocal blending among the cast. Kelley and Salutos, the taller couple, are paired as dancing partners, while medium-heighters Fionte and Bunn dance with each other. Fionte sings with Salutos, however, in the comedy number "You Must Meet My Wife," in which a deluded new husband explains his partner's charms to his mistress. (Salutos, a nimble comedienne, has the final word on marriage, though, in her role as the manic bride in "Getting Married Today.")
Kelley and Bunn get their own comic energy going in "Little Things," the salute to the survival strategies of the long-married from Company. Fionte joins Salutos and Bunn in "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," the Andrews Sisters-inspired boogie-woogie song from the same show. All four voices create a lovely mix for "Send in the Clowns," Sondheim's one pop hit, written for A Little Night Music and reinterpreted by many. Even this 1975 Grammy-winning song, played on the radio ad nauseam in the '70s, can withstand one more drive around the block, providing it's as thoughtful as the one here.
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