Sweeney Todd sets to music the story of a serial killer. Sunday in the Park with George is about the lonely life of a painter, perpetually watching life pass beneath his window. Passion is about the relationship between a handsome man and an unattractive, chronically ill woman who is stalking him.
These are “not on the surface your customary musical comedy themes!” notes Sandor Goodhart, director of Jewish Studies at Purdue University, in the preface to Reading Stephen Sondheim, a book of scholarly essays on the Jewish writer-composer who turned 85 last month.
No, they are not. But as Michael Ball, a veteran English actor, explains in a piece for London’s Guardian newspaper, Sondheim writes “musical theatre – plays with music – not musical comedy, and there’s a difference.”
Sondheim may have grown up next door to Oscar Hammerstein II in suburban Philadelphia, but his work couldn’t be more different from the escapist musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. Hammerstein believed there’s a “bright golden haze on the meadow,” as his lyric goes, but Sondheim never did.
Sondheim’s plays can be cynical, even downright depressing, as in the second act of Into the Woods, in which nearly everyone dies (perhaps an allegory of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, during which the musical was written). But, as a consequence, when his characters experience joy, tenderness or togetherness – even just for a moment – those passing moments are truly moving. They feel earned.
Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer understands this. That’s why, for 25 years, Signature’s signature has been the work of Stephen Sondheim, most recently with their gorgeous and well-acted production of Sunday in the Park with George and with Simply Sondheim, a new revue that opened last week.
Schaeffer deserves credit for the conception of this show, if not for the casting and vocal direction. With songs like “The Worst Pies in London” and “I Guess This is Goodbye,” he showcases Sondheim at his wittiest. With “Could I Leave You?” and “The Ladies Who Lunch,” he lets fly two of Sondheim’s most brutal, unflinching takes on marriage and bourgeois society.
Donna Migliaccio, who also starred in Signature’s Sunday in the Park with George, leads this uneven cast of six singers. As Mrs. Lovett, the creepy, Cockney chef who bakes Sweeney’s murderous meat pies, she nearly steals the show. She has the acting chops, vocal talent and sense of comic timing required of any Sondheim interpreter. Likewise, Stephanie Waters is a convincing Cinderella from Into the Woods, a role she has clearly played before. For the rest of them, the material seems overmatched. I squirmed in my seat watching as Paul Scanlan’s cheeks went from pale pink to purple as he struggled for breath in “Finishing the Hat,” the song Mandy Patinkin originated in Sunday, and which arguably changed the medium forever.
The real stars of this performance turn out to be the members of the 16-piece orchestra led by Jon Kalbfleisch, and Jonathan Tunick, who provided the orchestrations. In an era when major artistic companies are scaling back on live music, like New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, or, in the case of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, eliminating it altogether, it’s a joy to hear such lush, full sounds accompanying a live production. The horn section here is particularly noteworthy, helping the audience to recall Sondheim’s singing painting in Sunday. And you’ll hear subtle chimes from Big Ben in “The Worst Pies in London,” drawing the audience uncomfortably close to this danse macabre.
At the curtain call last Sunday in Arlington, the audience reserved its loudest applause for the orchestra, which, in the spirit of a Sondheim musical, catches you off-guard.
Simply Sondheim, a new Sondheim revue, plays through April 19 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. Tickets are available by calling Ticketmaster at (703) 573-SEAT, and online at www.signature-theatre.org.