Stephen Sondheim is not your average writer of musicals. Froth, glamour, jaunty tap-dancing and hummable songs are not part of his repertoire. His musicals are, in fact, more like dramas with words, and serious and meaningful drama at that. What other writer of musicals has taken as subject matter the westernisation of Japan (Pacific Overtures), the attempted assassination, successful or otherwise, of US presidents (Assassins) or the dark side of fairytales (Into The Woods), to name but a few? His work is not to everyone’s taste, but Sondheim fans are a fervent bunch and I’m one of them!
He had a good grounding in the subject having befriended as a young man the son of Oscar Hammerstein, partner to Richard Rogers for countless memorable musicals of the mid 20th century. Sondheim’s parents had divorced and though he remained with his mother there was no love lost between them. Oscar became almost a surrogate father to him and when he realised the talent that his son’s friend manifested, gave him a thorough education in the writing of musicals. Sondheim decided to make his career in music and he never looked back.
His first breakthrough was writing the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story. Not long after, he was writing both words and music for his musicals although he was to collaborate with other lyricists in several instances. Not all were great hits and some were memorable failures, for example Merrily We Roll Along which lasted for only 16 performances on Broadway. But not for the first time Europe was to embrace what the US had rejected, and the 2001 UK production of Merrily scooped the Laurence Olivier award for best new musical.
Now it has been revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark, home to most of London’s theatres in Shakespeare’s time and becoming a popular theatrical area again in the 21st century. Starting in 1980 (around the time it was written) it adopts the novel approach of running the story backwards. So we first meet the central three characters, friends from 20 years back, as their lives have become jaded and all youthful enthusiasm and joie de vivre has ebbed away. As the years count back to 1957 (and in particular to the launch of the Soviet sputnik satellite) we see how different ambitions and accidents of life have formed their character and driven them apart. Why backwards, you may ask? Well, it certainly concentrates the mind and makes the audience more aware of changes that have happened, in contrast to the rather lazy way the mind follows events in chronological order.
The production values at the Chocolate Factory are extremely high. Although there are three central lead players, this is definitely an ensemble piece and everyone pulls their weight and expresses music, lyrics and emotions to the full. The balance between the orchestra and the actors is spot-on, something that is not always the case at the fringe, and the whole experience is mesmerizing and absorbing. The run has been extended by two weeks due to extremely high demand, so you now have the opportunity to see this until 9th March. There are also rumours that, like several Chocolate Factory productions before this, it may transfer to the West End and possibly even Broadway. If you are a Sondheim fan, you probably don’t need any more persuading to go; if you’re not, this could well be the one to convert you!
Jeannette Nelson, Arts Critic A bit of a culture vulture, Jeannette enjoys art exhibitions, cinema and classical music, but her main interest is the theatre. For several years she ran theatre discussion groups for which her MA in Modern Drama together with teaching skills stood her in good stead. She prefers to concentrate on the many off West End and fringe productions as well as that real treasure of the London theatre scene, the National.