“this exquisite production still bubbles with hope”
The year 2020 will be remembered, for many, as the year of outtakes. Our plans – and in some cases our hopes and dreams – strewn on the cutting room floor. It seems timely, then, to be reminded of the song-cycle, “Marry Me A Little”, which comprises, in the main, a collection of Stephen Sondheim numbers that were cut from some of his most noted shows – particularly ‘Follies’ and ‘A Little Night Music’. Sondheim was a master of the ‘could-have-been-should-have-been’ love song; a theme that pulses through this show and resonates all the more as we approach our own individual winter of discontent and isolation.
The two anonymous characters are alone, in their own New York apartments. Initially, it is not completely clear whether they are an estranged couple or merely strangers, but they both share a burning desire to reconnect somehow. The show could just as easily be titled ‘Two Fairy Tales’, the opening number which is sung with a melancholic optimism that sets the scene for the next sixty minutes. Devoid of any plot and dialogue, the show is carried by Rob Houchen and Celinde Schoenmaker who undeniably give real depth to a fairly narrow concept. The two beautiful voices on display lavish extra layers of meaning and poignancy onto the lyrics, while their harmonies unite their separation. While knowing little about them you do, in fact, care quite deeply.
Kirk Jameson’s production brings the narrative into the Tinder Age, the pair swiping texts and images on their phones as they sweep through the numbers. The split lives are neatly conveyed by the split set and split screen backdrop. But the focus is always on the music. Stripped back to just Arlene McNaught’s piano accompaniment the songs’ lyrical content is pushed centre stage and it is a pure delight to hear the richness of Sondheim’s libretto delivered with comparable splendour by Houchen and Schoenmaker. From the Jazz Age, innuendo laden, pastiche of ‘Can That Boy Foxtrot!’ and the yearning harmonies of ‘Who Could Be Blue?’ – both cut from “Follies”; through to the familiar ‘Marry Me A Little’ from “Company”; and the relatively unknown but hauntingly beautiful ‘The Girls of Summer’. The show packs in nearly twenty of Sondheim’s compositions in just one hour, closing with another number that never initially made the grade – the aptly titled ‘It Wasn’t Meant To Happen’ – steeped in yearning, regret and nostalgia.
A nostalgia that is sadly brought to the fore watching an online show of such a performance. Recorded with a socially distanced audience before the second lockdown, the sense of loss is unavoidable. Musical revues of this kind never fully translate to the small screen. “… The champagne was flat, the timing was wrong…” Sondheim’s closing lyrics tell us. Yet this exquisite production still bubbles with hope. Like this collection of songs that has eventually made it onto the stage, we too can all pick up the debris of this disastrous year and build something memorable.
In the meantime: “So what can you do on a Saturday night alone?” sing Houchen and Schoenmaker early on in the show. And straight away you know the answer.
“knocks the socks off the original cast recording”
“Attention must be paid”. Towards the end of his musical ‘Assassins’, which had a triumphant performance at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury last night, the legendary Stephen Sondheim quotes this line from Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’.
‘Assassins’ is a musical that asks just exactly what would make ten Americans want to kill eight Presidents, from Lincoln to Reagan. The answer lies in that quote, which neatly also describes the audience’s rapt concentration during a quite extraordinary show. And if you are thinking that the killing of presidents and the fate of their would-be assassins is a rather macabre subject for a musical, be re-assured. Although it carries a 14+ advisory, this is an altogether entertaining and most thought-provoking show.
The Watermill has a history of championing eight times Tony award-winning Sondheim, whose work is held in such awe that even the most august critics are reduced to scrabbling autograph hunters in his presence. ‘Assassins’ is by no means his best-known work, but it is perhaps his most intriguing.
Not long into the piece, which had its premiere off-Broadway in 1990, the character of the Balladeer (here played with great presence and likeability by Lillie Flynn) sings “Every now and then the country goes a little wrong. Every now and then a madman’s bound to come along” And if you are thinking that line has more than a little resonance today, I suspect Sondheim would agree with you.
Space is tight at the Watermill, making any performance an intimate and involving experience. Director Bill Buckhurst has cleverly used a Coke machine to replace the fairground shooting gallery specified in the script, and Simon Kenny’s set design is starkly effective, with some ingenious twists towards the end.
It’s a little invidious to highlight standout performances in such a tight ensemble work, but several deserve special mention. Steve Simmonds’ has two brilliantly intense monologues as Samuel Byck, who planned to hijack a 747 to kill Nixon. Zheng Xi Yong gives a sinuous and wonderfully committed performance as Giuseppe Zangara who attempted to assassinate FD Roosevelt.
Evelyn Hoskins (Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme) and Sara Poyzer (Sarah Jane Moore) have some excellent scenes. Poyzer plays a cookie ex-Fed, nicely contrasting with Hoskins’ weed-toting take on mass-murderer Manson’s moll. Eddie Elliott has a powerful charisma as Charles Guiteau, especially in the difficult key-changing number he sings so brilliantly just before his character walks to the gallows. Joey Hickman has a menacing glassy-eyed demeanour as the Proprietor of this captivating parade of human failings. Alex Mugnaioni is eerily compelling as ‘the pioneer’ – the first Presidential assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Ned Rudkins-Stow has the task of bringing to life John F Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. The traumatic impact of this murder on the American mindset resonates to this day, and Rudkins-Stow’s lean interpretation makes it crystal clear that Oswald was a simple-minded victim of manipulation.
Catherine Tyler is responsible for the compelling orchestration, which makes the most of the entire cast’s astonishing musical abilities, requiring some of them to play one instrument whilst holding another, and to jump seamlessly from drums or keyboard to appearing centre stage. Expert choreography by Assistant Director Georgina Lamb ensures it all works smoothly.
This version of ‘Assassins’ knocks the socks off the original cast recording and is strongly recommended.