Sondheim: Side by Side – by Side
Austin gets a triple scoop from the musical master: 'Company,' 'Merrily We Roll Along,' and 'Assassins'
"Isn't it warm, / Isn't it rosy, / Side by side by side?" perpetual bachelor Robert sings of his relationships with his married friends in the Stephen Sondheim musical Company. This month, Austin theatregoers are being treated to a smorgasbord of Sondheim: three new productions of the composer/lyricist's works – Company (Austin Theatre Project), Merrily We Roll Along (Mary Moody Northen Theatre), and Assassins (Soubrette Productions) – that will indeed play side by side by side, or at least simultaneously. This Sondheim flood is relief after something of a local drought; other than Sweeney Todd from the University of Texas' Butler Opera Center in February, a show of his hasn't been done in the city since 2011. Moreover, this trifecta offers audiences unfamiliar with the Tony-, Oscar-, Grammy-, and Pulitzer Prize-winning songwriter – who celebrated his 84th birthday on March 22 – a primer on his career, covering three key decades: the Seventies (Company), Eighties (Merrily), and Nineties (Assassins). (Four, if you consider that Assassins debuted off-Broadway in 1990 but didn't appear on the Great White Way until 2004.)
This cross-section of Sondheim's catalog features two of his less frequently produced titles, Merrily and Assassins, and one of his most popular, Company. That piece from 1970, with a libretto by George Furth, was a substantial achievement for Sondheim. Though the protégé of Broadway lyricist and bookwriter Oscar Hammerstein II had penned the lyrics for West Side Story, Gypsy, and Do I Hear a Waltz?, and the words and music for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Anyone Can Whistle, Company was his first real validation as a composer. Despite previous and ongoing complaints that his music was too complex, he picked up Tony Awards for best score and best lyrics, the first of many such honors. Company's humor, thoughtful exploration of romantic commitment, and songs, including "Being Alive" and "The Ladies Who Lunch," have kept the show a favorite among theatre artists and audiences.
On the other end of the spectrum is Merrily, also sporting a book by Furth. This tale, which starts with an arrogant and money-hungry Hollywood producer, then backtracks in time to reveal how he gave up a budding composing career and alienated his closest friends, flopped in its initial Broadway outing, running a mere 16 performances in 1981. That inauspicious beginning, along with the challenges of the show's reverse chronology and unsympathetic protagonist, has led to a dearth of productions. In fact, MMNT is mounting Austin's first fully staged presentation of Merrily in 25 years. Even so, fans and critics often hail it as one of Sondheim's most accessible and vibrant scores, and the authors have continued to revise over the years, contributing to the piece's first commercial success: the 2012/2013 London staging that received cinema screenings around the globe.
Assassins, centered around historical individuals who either killed a U.S. president or attempted to, not surprisingly had difficulty finding an audience as well. Like Sondheim's other collaborations with librettist John Weidman (Pacific Overtures, Road Show) it examines national identity, but Assassins didn't sit well with many people, especially when it premiered during the Gulf War. And a Broadway production slated for 2001 was pushed back after 9/11. But the work hardly celebrates its murderous subjects; rather, it's a strangely intriguing exploration of what might have caused them to commit such extreme acts. And although the topic is serious, Assassins contains a fair amount of laughs.
This triple play highlights Sondheim's penchant for taking theatrical risks, including his experiments with time: Many of Company's scenes could be switched around, Merrily unfolds backward, and Assassins unites characters from several eras. These musicals also exhibit the realization of Sondheim's maxim "Content dictates form," since the music of each is unique, but still sounds like Sondheim. Taken together, Company, Merrily, and Assassins provide an enjoyable overview of the composer's most prolific decades – each delivering hefty servings of comedy and drama while offering insight into the human condition. Whether you attend one of these productions or all three, you'll be in good company.
Merrily We Roll Along runs April 3-13, Thursday-Saturday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 2pm, at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, 3001 S. Congress. For more information, call 512/448-8484 or visit www.stedwards.edu/mmnt.
Assassins runs April 3-20, Thursday-Sunday, 8pm, at the Boyd Vance Theatre, 1165 Angelina. For more information, visit www.soubretteproductions.com.
Company runs April 11-27, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 3pm; with an added matinee Saturday, April 19, 2pm, at the Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Rd. For more information, visit www.austintheatreproject.org.