Frank Rich, The Clean-Shaven James Lipton

This account of the recent “Conversation with Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich” at Avery Fisher Hall makes it sound like a pretty unenlightening evening (and one of the commenters, who was there, indicates that there wasn’t much more to the evening than is covered in this blog post). Sondheim tells a few stories, most of which he’s told before, and the only big revelation is that The Wiz is one of his favourite musicals and he went back to see it six times. (Seriously, liking The Wiz better than My Fair Lady and South Pacific?) And I liked his explanation of why the 1964 bomb Anyone Can Whistle turned out so disappointingly: as Peter Shaffer told him, the authors’ contempt for the audience was all too obvious. But other than that, it doesn’t seem like the best use of the time.

Perhaps there would have been more interesting discussions if the moderator were someone other than Frank Rich, who is well-known as the greatest Sondheim sycophant among New York theatre critics. In 1984 Rich plugged Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park With George — which still strikes me as a dull show with a few good songs, some really bad songs (“We Do Not Belong Together”), and dialogue that sounds like it’s been poorly translated from the original Sanskrit — so frequently, and praised it so incessantly as the solution to all of the musical theatre’s problems, that he almost single-handedly kept the show running for a year and a half. There’s a famous story that the day after Sunday in the Park With George won the Pulitzer prize, the editor of the paper complained to his staff that they hadn’t won any Pulitzers that year. “Sure we did,” someone said. “Frank won the drama award.”

Since Follies, Sondheim’s best show, was one of the few musicals they didn’t mention, here’s a video clip to compensate. The 1971 production is legendary because it was enormously expensive and lavish — a huge cast, two directors (producer Hal Prince and choreographer Michael Bennett shared directing credit), a big orchestra, many big dance numbers (unlike Sondheim’s later shows, which cut dancing to a minimum) — but used that lavishness in the service of a small story, making it a unique amalgam of two kinds of musicals, the lavish spectacle and the angsty small-scale musical. (Bennett’s A Chorus Line had a similar style and structure, but while it was much more successful than Follies, it wasn’t anywhere near as good.) The cast album was heavily cut, there was no movie or taping of the show, and none of the subsequent revivals have been fully satisfying, so the original production, with its great cast and expensive, money-losing production, lives in legend.

All that’s left is some very scratchy footage shot from the wings, overdubbed with sound from the soundboard. So when you see this footage of Gene Nelson (Oklahoma!) singing “The Right Girl” with Michael Bennett’s choreography, you have to accept that you can’t see or hear anything very clearly — but at least you can get an idea of the original staging and of the way it combined song, dance, design, lighting and the unique abilities of each performer (in this case, Nelson’s dancing abilities). And even with the bad sound, you can hear the great orchestrations in the dance sections, a reminder why there’s no substitute for a real, full orchestra in a musical (shut up, John Doyle).