by Michael Dale
In musical theatre, it’s not enough to write a good song. You have to write the right song. Character, plot, placement and various intangibles all go into making music, lyrics and performance all effectively fit into a moment and contribute to the piece as a whole.
So, in the case of musical theatre dramatist Stephen Sondheim, the fun and frisky “Can That Boy Foxtrot!” gets replaced by the emotionally rich “I’m Still Here.” The acidic “Happily Ever After” gets rewritten into the hopeful “Being Alive.” And as for “There Won’t Be Trumpets”… Well, if the top-billed star is getting a better response for her delivery of the speech that introduces the song than for the song itself, the song gets axed and the speech stays.
By 1980, the Sondheim trunk was packed with quality material; not just unused songs penned for the then seven Broadway shows for which he wrote both music and lyrics, but also from unproduced works and lesser-known projects. It was the idea of Sweeney Todd chorus member Craig Lucas (Ten years before making his Broadway playwriting debut with Prelude To A Kiss) and director Norman Rene to shape a collection of them into a sorta-revue/sorta-book musical called Marry Me A Little; its title taken from a song of sorta-commitment that was cut from the original production of Company but has since become a permanent part of the score.
The two person musical, which originally starred Lucas and Suzanne Henry, is set simultaneously in two New York apartments (one just above the other), where, via nineteen songs and no dialogue, two young singles go about their business on a dateless Saturday night, wishing there was a special someone to share such evenings with. But instead of splitting the stage in two, the actors inhabit the same space, never acknowledging each other until moments where each of them imagines being with a fantasy lover.
Director Jonathan Silverstein‘s sweet and sexy production for the Keen Company tweaks the score just a bit, updates the action to the present and places the apartment building firmly into one of the trendier areas of Brooklyn. Jason Tam, dressed by costume designer Jennifer Paar in Williamsburg hipster garb, plays the male half of the company as a laid-back dude hiding a romantic heart. His counterpart, Lauren Molina, comes off as more of an outer-boroughs arty type. Both are engaging performers and it’s a special treat that their vocals are unamplified. Music director John Bell provides on-stage piano accompaniment, presumably from an adjoining flat.
Modern technology is highlighted in the staging. When the “Saturday Night” lyric mentions spending the evening at home with the Sunday Times, it sends Tam to his laptop for the web edition. Later, the staging of “Bring On The Girls” makes it clear that he’s logged on to a porn site. Likewise, as Molina sings of the boy who can foxtrot so well she’s giddily sexting the thickheaded lad. Fortunately, both of them are into vintage record players, as playing a vinyl disc is necessary for an intimate moment.
Since Sondheim is a dramatist who specifies music, vocabulary and rhyme schemes to the characters singing, a healthy suspension of disbelief is necessary to believe that Tam’s nervous, distracted juvenile dueting “Your Eyes Are Blue” with Molina is the same martini-tongued sophisticate singing “Ah, But Underneath” or the dejected cynic of “Happily Ever After.” (He makes a game effort with the middle selection but is far more effective in the other two, which are closer to the image he projects.)
Molina, whose cello playing skills are well incorporated into the scenario, benefits from having more material that genuinely contributes to shaping a believable character. She lights a fine, simmering flame beneath the quietly jazzy “The Girls of Summer” and belts out “There Won’t Be Trumpets” with a firm conviction that her ideal mate is out there somewhere.
Perhaps the only oddball inclusion to the score is “Bang!,” a number cut from A Little Night Music, where the original show’s dragoon uses the language of war to describe sexual conquest. The song’s formal language and graphically literal staging stands out as just too different from the way the characters are presented in the rest of the production.
Then again, it’s been over thirty years since 1980 and many of these once-obscure songs have become better known via recordings, cabarets, concerts and various Sondheim revues. Put a couple of theatre posters on the wall and Marry Me A Little would make perfect sense as two theatre geeks alone in their apartments acting out their favorite showtunes; the musical theatre equivalent of playing air guitar.
Photos of Lauren Molina and Jason Tam by Carol Rosegg.
After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.