In the early to mid-1980s when I first discovered my love of theatre, I also discovered my love of Stephen Sondheim musicals. I absorbed everything I could possibly find on video of performances of his shows. He is a clever and witty lyricist and an accomplished composer and his shows are often dark and full of poignant messages with songs that make you laugh and cut straight to your soul with a complexity in both the musical stylings and the themes. He was a true American treasure. He also wrote a few shows that fit into the Horror / Sci-fi genre, and I will be covering 4 of them in this article. Evening Primrose, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods.
Evening Primrose (1966): Technically this show doesn’t fit in with the regular purpose of my monthly series on genre live performance productions. As this was not a live performance but was actually written for the ninth episode of the American television series ABC Stage 67. Based on a John Collier short story published in 1951, it tells the tale of a poet, Charles Snell, who hides in a department store after closing, only to find that there is a whole society of people who have been living in the store, only coming out at night. Charles joins the group and falls in love with Ella, one of the groups young women. The problem is, once you join the group, you can never leave. If you attempt to leave, the “Dark Men” come after you, and turn you into a mannequin. Ella wants to leave, and she convinces Charles to leave with her, with dire consequences.
It was aired once, and was not aired again until the 2000s, and even though it was written specifically for television, live performance productions have been staged with the first one being done in London in 2005. The original telecast was in color, but the original master tape was lost and has yet to be found. There are a few copies of the black and white version, which was used to make the DVDs that were offered to the public for the first time in 2010. Anthony Perkins of Psycho fame played the lead and Charmian Carr as Ella.
Evening Primrose is a lesser-known show, but a couple of its songs have been covered by some famous artists. “Take Me to The World” has been covered by Barbary Steisand along with Antonio Banderas and “I Remember” has been covered by Sarah Brightman, Judy Collins, John Pizzarelli, Mark Murphy, Cleo Laine, Maureen McGovern, Betty Buckley, Julia Migenes, Dianne Reeves, Myrra Malmberg, Madeline Eastman, Bernadette Peters, Victoria Mallory, and again Barbra Streisand. “I remember sky!”
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979): As a fan of musical theatre and horror films, who would not be filled with joy in the murderous story of Sweeney Todd, a London barber wrongly imprisoned on a trumped-up charge and sent to a penal colony, only to escape 20 years later and return to find his daughter, a ward of the judge who purposely sent him away and his wife gone. Sweeney sets out for revenge with the help of Mrs. Lovett who takes his killings and turns them into meat pies, in which she sells in her shop to the public. The sailor who saved Sweeney ends up falling in love with Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna, but Judge Turpin has decided to marry his young ward himself. All the plot lines come to a head, and everyone gets what is coming to them!
With music which is both beautiful and discordant, with the use of shop whistles and jarring chords that match the harshness and the chaos of life. Len Cariou, Angela Lansbury and Victor Garber were all in the original Broadway production and in February of 2023, Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford head the 3rd Broadway revival. I had the honor of seeing Julia McKenzie and Alun Armstrong in the 1st West End Revival in London in the early 1990s. And saw Jean Stapleton and Ed Evanko lead a great cast in San Jose, California in 1989. If I had to choose one musical as a favorite, this would probably be it, although the next two shows I am about to talk about would also be in the running. “Attend the Tale”!
Sunday in the Park with George (1984): A fictionalized telling of the life of French pointillist painter George Seurat and his painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. George is a man of few words but deep emotions who is deeply driven by his work, so much so, that he neglects the love of his life, Dot. She eventually gets tired of this neglect and leaves him for a baker, who is not the artist that George is, he pays her the attention she deserves, but Dot was pregnant with George’s child when she left. Act II takes place in the present where Seurat’s Great Grandson, also named George, is struggling with making his own art and the art that will sell and make him famous. In a time bending plot twist on the Island that his Great Grandfather frequented so often, the young George meets his Great Grandmother and she helps him with his struggles.
The music is hauntingly beautiful with wonderful songs full of both joy and sadness. The show won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, two Tony awards amongst many other honors. The story strikes at what art is, its very essence and its effect on life and relationships. It shows a man who cannot express himself in words, so he does so in his paintings. The original production starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters doing amazing work. Note to the Star Trek fans, Brent Spiner was also in the original Broadway cast and Kelsey Grammar was in the original Off Broadway cast. The second Broadway revival in 2017 starred Jake Gyllenhaal and again Annaleigh Ashford in the leading roles. The lyrics in this show are incredibly powerful, deep and rich with meaning, and like the painting this is about, layered with color that produces a magical effect. “White! a blank page or canvas”!
Into the Woods (1987): Into the Woods intertwines several plots of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, which are not the stories Disney has shown you. The Brothers Grimm stories were often dark and morality tales spun to teach lessons to children. A baker and his wife would like a child, but the witch next door laid a spell on their family that they would never have children, in order to lift the curse, they must find four objects within the woods. One, a cow as white as milk. Two, a cape as red as blood. Three, a slipper as pure as gold, and four, hair as yellow as corn. These of course correspond to Jack and the Bean Stalk, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Rapunzel. All the items must be found before the chime of midnight in three days’ time. Their quest for these objects is the story of Act I. But Act II is what happens after “Happily Ever After”, after all the wishes have come true, and unfortunately, getting what you want isn’t always what will make you happy. Act II has a giant terrorizing the Kingdom in search for Jack who killed her husband when he chopped down the infamous bean stalk.
The music for this show is mostly upbeat and lighthearted, full of clever and humorous lyrics. But it also hits on hard themes of morality of life, death, revenge and infidelity. Like in many of Sondheim’s works, the second act is a bit darker than the first act. The songs ”Children will Listen” and “No More” remind us to be careful what we say as words have power and a legacy. Wishes once granted can’t be undone and running away isn’t the answer.
The original Broadway cast included Bernadette Peters, Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason in the leads with all of them providing the perfect balance of spot on comic timing and amazing singing talents. I had the privilege of seeing the First National Tour, which had Jazz singer, Cleo Laine replacing Bernadette Peters and Ray Gill as the Baker. I was very disappointed in both castings with Cleo doing a great job as an actress, but her vocal style, which is quite good on its own, didn’t quite fit the music in my opinion. On the flip side, Ray Gill’s vocals were fine, but his acting style didn’t have the ring of truth to it and his comic timing was just slightly off, as if he was trying too hard to be funny. Also in that cast was Charlotte Rae, as Jack’s mother, who was phenomenal and Robert Duncan McNeil as Jack who would go on to play Tom Paris in Star Trek: Voyager. “It’s the Last Midnight”!
Stephen Sondheim’s work is vast and varied, he has composed for Movies, Television, and of course Live Theatre. He received an Academy award, eight Tony Awards, Eight Grammy awards and the aforementioned Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He was bestowed the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement award and President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony at the White House. There are several foundations created by him, or in his name, for betterment of the arts particularly fostering talent in young people. In this article, I have barely scratched the surface of the multifaceted themes and the variety of musical styles he embraced and used. And on November 26, 2021, at the age of 91, Sondheim left this world and with him a true American treasure.
On Broadway: The Genre Musicals of Stephen Sondheim
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