Monday, August 27, 2018

Anyone Can Whistle

I should be ashamed but I'm not.

Last month a local theater critic interviewed me about why I was chosen as a member of the Theater Alliance panel. Off the top of my head, I had no idea why I'd been asked to join four years ago, but after some pondering, I remembered the application process. I'd been asked what my theater background and experience was.

Besides being student director of my sixth grade play, I was a tad short on experience. So what I wound up saying on air during the interview mirrored the words I'd written that had gotten me a spot on the panel.

Sondheim. Stephen Sondheim is what made me a theater devotee.

Back when I was in college, I had a part-time job at the Hecht Company, which also happened to be a Ticketmaster outlet (this was back before we knew what an evil monopoly they were with their obscene "handling fees"). This fact came in handy whenever tickets went on sale, whether it was Fleetwood Mac at the Capital Centre or a new play at the Kennedy Center.

Suffice it to say that I bought a lot of tickets for both venues. No surprise, my devotion to experiencing culture was firmly entrenched even by age 19.

But because it was the Kennedy Center, the plays I was seeing were important ones with major talent. I'm talking star power like Katharine Hepburn in "West Side Waltz," Nicol Williamson in "Rex" and James Whitmore in "The Magnificent Yankee."

But mostly I'm talking about a play like Sondheim's "Pacific Overtures," which jolted me out of my Eisenhower-era Rogers and Hammerstein mindset in 1976 with a play unlike anything I had ever experienced. By the time I saw his "Sweeney Todd" with Angela Lansbury in 1979, I knew I was experiencing a new take on theater completely unlike my parents' notion of theater. A few years later, I reveled in "Merrily We Roll Along." The dye had been cast.

I was completely enamored of Sondheim's brilliant lyrics, sublime internal rhymes and intricate melodies. Sondheim made me a theater lover, plain and simple. I was so enamored, I went on to read Meryle Secrest's stellar biography "Stephen Sondheim: A Life." Twice.

Fast forward and I couldn't have been more thrilled that Richmond Triangle Players was producing "Sondheim on Sondheim," a revue of nearly 40 of the master's songs from a selection of the musicals he's penned since he did the lyrics to "West Side Story" back in 1957.

The first thing I didn't know going in was that the songs would be performed in between film clips of Sondheim interviews dating back to the 1960s. As a certifiable documentary dork, this was like getting a two-fer: a night of live theater and a night of Sondheim interviews and self-reflection.

The second thing I didn't know was how few of Sondheim's songs I recognized. Granted, the man's got close to 20 major works and some of the songs were previously unheard, but, sheesh, I'd apparently forgotten more than I remembered in the intervening decades.

On the other hand, how often do you get to hear "Something's Coming" sung by two different companies in the same summer?

The good news is that not recognizing every song didn't lessen my enjoyment of "Sondheim on Sondheim" one iota. A familiar tune like "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" from "Company" is still hilarious and "Send in the Clowns" from "A Little Night Music" will always be poignant and full of regret, no matter who sings it. Ditto the longing in "Being Alive" from "Company."

You don't need to know a Sondheim song to thoroughly enjoy hearing it sung live by a talented cast, even if most of them weren't so much as a gleam in their father's eye when he wrote them. Details, details.

Because so many of Sondheim's songs are about relationships and human behavior with each other, it was fascinating to hear him say that he hadn't found love until he was 60. For a late bloomer, he certainly nailed the intricacies of human emotions. It's hard to imagine someone having to wait six decades to find their forever person, although I hear it happens.

For those of us who began worshiping at the Sondheim altar in college, hearing the company sing "God" was affirmation that we'd chosen the right religion.

The man's a god
Wrote the score to Sweeney Todd
With a nod to de Sade
Well, he's off
Well, he's god

The lyrics are so smart
And the music has such heart
It has heart
Well, in part
Let's not start
Call it art
No, call it god

That god showed me the future of musical theater. What kind of acolyte would I be if I didn't spread the gospel of Sondheim?

More importantly, now that I know how long he waited for true love, let's hear it for the late bloomers.

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