Three For The Show: Spate Of Sondheim, Old And, Well…‘Here We Are’

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Josh Groban plays Sweeney and Annaleigh Ashford is Mrs. Lovett in the new Broadway production of Sondheim’s ‘Sweeney Todd.’ (Photo by Evan Zimmerman)

PERSPECTIVE — Abandon all hope for the Falstaff that never came. With the opening of Stephen Sondheim’s posthumous Here We Are at The Shed in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards on Oct. 22, the canon is officially closed. After Passion (1994), the composer-lyricist whom Barbara Cook called the Picasso of the American musical had nothing left to prove, yet he kept working, in his notoriously dilatory fashion. There’s gold dust in the project that eventually shook out as Road Show (finalized in 2004), plus a pinch more in Here We Are. But alas, no motherlode. For that, we return to the catalogue as we’ve known it for decades. Today and most days, my top three would be Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), and Assassins (1991). Your list may be different.

Sondheim often noted, in his elder-statesman phase, that critics and general audiences often took a while to warm to his work. Two years after his death at 91, New York has a Sondheim trifecta going that includes boffo revivals of Sweeney Todd (1979), the original production of which fell “some way short,” in the words of The New York Times, “of being a smash hit” (19 previews, 557 performances), and of Merrily We Roll Along (1981), which originally landed like another Hindenburg (44 previews, 16 performances).

Ticket prices are out of sight for all three. Quotes from the online box offices (not third-party exchanges) fluctuate by day of the week from $89-$364 for Here We Are, $110-$372 for Sweeney Todd, and $279-$809 for Merrily. Beyond the hedge-fund crowd, true believers must be cracking open lots of piggy banks, because for true believers, picking and choosing is not an option.

Surprise! Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the unqualified bull’s-eye of the bunch. Solid in construction, cinematic in flow, it’s been packing them in at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre since March. And the scale is operatic — in keeping with the restoration of Jonathan Tunick’s long-unheard original orchestrations for a 26-piece ensemble, a luxury virtually unheard of in the pinched economy of commercial theater today.

Not so incidentally, the show shares its director, Thomas Kail, with Hamilton, the juggernaut across the street, which in many ways it resembles. The imagery recalls vintage screen adaptations of Dickens, with jolts of melodrama straight out of classic German horror flicks. Hats off to Mimi Lien, whose scenic design frames the bustling action within the span of a single monumental arch, and to Emilio Sosa, whose costumes capture London’s colorful populace in all their Victorian theatricality. But the ingredient that jangles the nervous system most subtly is Steven Hoggett’s slightly off-kilter, subtly spasmodic choreography for the ensemble.

Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford, and the company of ‘Sweeney Todd’ (Photo by Evan Zimmerman)

Hoggett’s touch of the uncanny is sorely needed. After decades on Broadway, off Broadway, on the big screen, not to mention community and school stages from sea to shining sea, Sweeney Todd’s tale of rape, deportation, murderous vengeance, and serendipitous cannibalism has grown as comfortable as Charley’s Aunt’s old shoe. To think that for all its gags and music-hall verve, Harold Prince’s original production shocked viewers to the core! Forty-four years after the fact, the memory of the factory whistle that punctuated Prince’s show still pierces my eardrum like a frozen stiletto. Whether they even blow a factory whistle this time around I honestly could not tell you. (This just in from fact-checking: no whistle this time.)

Surely there are singing actors out there who could convey — as Len Cariou did in the original cast — the pitch-black Hobbesian revulsion that gnaws at the barber’s heart, driving him to mass murder. But what producer would cast such a monster in a big-budget Broadway revival? Josh Groban’s Lincolnesque frame, suave baritone, unclouded brow, and mannerly comportment show us the character as it were through the eyes of Mrs. Lovett, who silently longed for her “beautiful” neighbor in their distant youth, treasured his sterling-silver razors in his long absence, and now seizes the chance to make her move.

Mrs. Lovett, as many recognized back when Angela Lansbury first dazzled in the part, is the prismatic Bonnie to Sweeney Todd’s gloomy Clyde. Annaleigh Ashford, who’s up there now, has no end of comic tricks up her sleeve, and her timing is a marvel. Watch out for Ashford’s four-alarm seagull impressions — but for the most part, her touch is feather-light. And she keeps us guessing. Behind the porcelain features, airborne step, and feline sensuality lurks a sphinx we know and do not know, now tender-hearted, now with claws of steel, sometimes even both at once. As her pie shop takes off, she blossoms like a second Eliza Doolittle — an Eliza Doolittle who this time is way out in front of her Henry Higgins. But the clock’s ticking. Groban and Ashford take their final bows on Jan. 14. Prepare for a tectonic shift with the arrival of Aaron Tveit and Sutton Foster on Feb. 9.

Onward to Maria Friedman’s reboot of Merrily We Roll Along. Developed with different casts in London and Boston, the latest iteration opened at the downtown New York Theatre Workshop with Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez sharing top billing. Announcements of a Broadway transfer were not long in coming. Since October 2023, Merrily has filling the house at the Hudson Theatre, and it recently extended its run to July 2024.

According to a preview in The New York Times in December 2022, the rehearsal period touched the company in ways they had not expected. “I’d say the entire cast spent the first two weeks of rehearsals in tears, in tears,” Friedman said, “and they had no idea why.” One reason may be that George Furth’s book, based on a Depression-era play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, revolves around shallow, self-centered people consumed by self-pity. An actor playing such a person has to buy into that.

According to Friedman, she took Furth and Sondheim’s script exactly as she found it, changing nothing, just releasing all that feeling. Noted, but in fact Furth and Sondheim had retouched it considerably since its failed Broadway debut. It’s a stronger show now, but nothing fundamental has changed.

Daniel Radcliffe (Charley Kringas), Jonathan Groff (Franklin Shepard) and Natalie Wachen (KT) in ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

There was never much to the story, and there isn’t now. Barely out of school, a playwright, a composer, and a novelist with stars in their eyes go forth to set the world on fire, and for a second, they do. But the playwright clings to his dream of writing stuff that is meaningful, the composer is a sellout, and the novelist is a flash in the pan. In a twist, as in the original play, their unedifying history is told in reverse chronological order, from nuclear winter to hopeful spring.

Radcliffe, an elfin stick of dynamite in signature Harry Potter specs, plays the playwright Charley Kringas, the idealist. The matinee idol Groff appears as the composer Franklin Shephard, opportunist and serial adulterer. Mendez is Mary Flynn, a third wheel who gives up creative writing for criticism and drowns her disappointments in alcohol.

Mary keeps linking pinkies with the guys to salvage the old bond of friendship, but eventually Charley melts down on national TV, and that’s the end of that. Radcliffe’s blistering account of Charley’s furious number “Franklin Shephard, Inc.” pretty much eclipses the rest of the show. Nothing in Franklin’s role or Mary’s comes close.

Krystal Joy Brown, on the other hand, has quite a time of it as the Broadway queen bee Gussie Carnegie (née Shirley Akinola, I kid you not). After biding her time in Act 1, firing off bitchy asides, there she is at the top of Act 2, dripping sequins against a curtain of red velvet, taking charge with “Gussie’s Opening Number,” which isn’t so much a song as a teaser for a song, but what a teaser:

He’s only a boy…

Why do I think he loves me?

Maybe he loves what I can do for him.

Maybe he thinks I’ll come through for him.

Maybe the moon is cheese!

Blink, and you’ll miss it. (Don’t blink, and you’ll never forget it.) But before she calls it a night, Gussie’s back, in full Queen B mode, stinging the hands that feed her (and also fed her creator). Set-up: She’s introducing Franklin, on whom she has designs both personal and professional, to the glitterati whose chatter will make his career. Elsewhere, Mary calls this same crowd the “movers” and “shapers” (not “shakers,” which inconveniently for her wouldn’t rhyme with “papers” and “vapors”).

“Meet the Blob,” Gussie begins:

Meet the Blob,

The bodies you read about.

The ones who know everyone

That everybody knows.

Meet the Blob,

Not many and yet—

You never see one.

They come as a set.

What with one thing and another, Gussie steals thunder from lots of people we should care about much more — in particular, Katie Rose Clarke as Beth Shephard, Frank’s discarded first wife and mother of his son. We know who she is, but we’ve never seen her when she materializes outside of divorce court, launching straight into “Not A Day Goes By,” singing her cheated heart out. Psychodrama to the max, out of thin air. Impact: zero.

Reg Rogers (Joe Josephson), Katie Rose Clarke (Beth Shepard), Jonathan Groff (Franklin Shepard), Daniel Radcliffe (Charley Kringas) and Lindsay Mendez (Mary Flynn) in ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Bigger numbers? Following Gussie’s moment in the spotlight, sheer joy strikes in the form of “It’s A Hit!,” sung by Charley, Frank, et al. as an offstage audience goes wild for their first Broadway show. Later, as a sample of Charley and Frank’s juvenilia (reverse chronology, remember), there’s the antic skit “Bobbie and Jackie and Jack,” spoofing guess what political dynasty? Does anyone still wear a hat?

In the finale, Frank, Charley, and Mary, younger than we’ve ever seen them, gaze out from a New York rooftop, stars dancing around them. “It’s our time, breathe it in,” they sing to a tune of disarming simplicity, “Worlds to change and worlds to win….” Promises, promises…

The future lies before them like the poet’s land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new — but also so unforgiving, if only the friends were listening to their lyrics. “It’s our heads on the block,” they continue, “Give us room and start the clock./Our dreams coming true,/Me and you, pal,/Me and you!” Cue the waterworks.

On to The Shed at Hudson Yards and Here We Are. Word got out eons ago that the book would be a mashup of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Exterminating Angel, films by Luis Buñuel, the fiercely anticlerical Spanish surrealist and revolutionary. The Discreet Charm concerns a group of people who hit the road in search of a meal; The Exterminating Angel (1962, reverse chronology strikes again!) deals with people — different people (details, details) — who show up for a dinner party and can’t leave the room.

A scene from the premiere production of ‘Here We Are’ at The Shed at Hudson Yards (Photo by Emilio Madrid)

No one denies that Sondheim had been working on the Buñuel project under various titles over a very long period of time. No one denies that the playwright David Ives and the director Joe Mantello had his full cooperation and attention in the project’s final stages. But did Sondheim really give his OK for a production? The testimony from those in a position to know is far from conclusive. My guess is that he went back and forth.

As a tribute to a master who has left the house, Mantello’s show at The Shed could hardly be bettered. The book holds together, in its absurdist fashion. The slick, stylish production in its box of mirrors ticks along like clockwork. Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations surprise and delight the ear. The casting is pitch-perfect. If only the score weren’t such a thing of shreds and patches.

Orienting ourselves would be easier with the customary cheat sheet of musical numbers in hand, but the program book doesn’t list them. As it is, stitching the bits into a tapestry seems rather a lost cause.

To make matter worse, the score peters out to the point that Act 2 could almost pass for a spoken play. Might that not be because Sondheim’s inkwell was running dry? No, no, no, some sharpies have reasoned. It’s an artistic choice! With no place left to go, the characters can’t sing! Tell that to Radamès and Aida.

Besides, the most glaring musical lacuna comes at the very top of the show, long before the walls start closing in. Guests pour onstage à la Company for a brunch their hosts were planning for the next day, jabbering a bouncy mile a minute, except that this time (bummer), it’s all talk, talk, talk.

David Hyde Pierce as the Bishop in ‘Here We Are’ (Photo by Emilio Madrid)

As Part 1 (“The Road”) gets going, our hungry band bops from eatery to snooty eatery, one more grotesque in its pretensions than the next, none serving food, drink, or so much as a glass of water. Obliquely, we learn of military operations against a multinational drug cartel. An adulterous couple carry on under a cuckold’s nose. Air strikes resound. Top secrets fly back and forth between agents with the code names Apocalypse and Inferno. Beneath the fun and games, it’s a world we know too well. Escapism this is not.

One track I’ll be looking for when/if they issue an original-cast album is a Buddha-meets-Shakespearean number for the Soldier, played by the mesmerizing Jin Ha. We’re already well into Act 1 when he erupts onstage like Rambo. But he’s far from the action hero we mistake him for at first. In the dream that is the subject of his song, all the world’s a stage destined to vanish when he awakens. The love-at-first-sight duet Ha shares with Micaela Diamond as the gender-fluid champagne ecoguerilla Fritz is another keeper. At a first hearing, it came off like vintage Sondheim, up there with the best of Passion.

David Hyde Pierce, who doesn’t appear until intermission is nearly upon us, plays a Bishop who has a bone to pick with God and does so, assiduously, to music. Spoiler alert: His Excellency needs a job. I won’t be surprised to hear that one again in a cabaret program. Rachel Bay Jones plays Marianne Brink, a tycoon’s trophy wife, who has a dream sequence dancing with an eight-foot bear. In the wasteland of Part 2, their barcarole shimmers like an oasis. The bear, you should know, is straight out of The Exterminating Angel, but if you’re hoping to sight Buñuel’s trinity of sheep roaming through the mansion, you’re out of luck. Was that (blasphemous?) touch of Apocalypse (?) just one too many?