All Things Entertaining and Cultural
In 1980, Craig Lucas and Norman Rene compiled a selection of first-rate songs cut from Sondheim shows, mostly because they were replaced by a different, more salient composition, and cobbled them into a sung-through playlet about two single people who live in the same apartment building and who have lonely, isolated existences that remain unrelieved, even though the two imagine each other and combine for duets. They called their musical “Marry Me a Little,” after the title of a excellent song removed from “Company” (and sometimes restored upon a director’s whim). The piece is limited to cast-offs from early shows that Sondheim wrote solo, from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1963) to “A Little Night Music” (1973), and includes several tunes from “Saturday Night,” a show Sondheim composed in 1954 but which didn’t receive an important production until 1999, when Second Stage did it off-Broadway to SRO acclaim. (I saw it twice.) Whenever they were written and whatever their fate, the numbers comprised in “Marry Me a Little” are a treat to know and hear, especially in the intimate and beautifully acted production Stephen Casey stages for Souderton’s Montgomery Theater with Kim Carson and Peter Carrier as Sondheim’s splendid interpreters.
Lyrics are a shambles in today’s theater. Songs from the last 20 years are too often trite, expedient substitutes for narration instead of well-crafted, thoughtful, or jaunty verse that comes close to poetry and conveys emotions, attitudes, ideas, and responses that cannot as efficiently be expressed in dialogue. Worse, a majority of recent show tunes spout shabby, shallow, dime-store sentiments in language that is closer to doggerel than heightened passion, personal revelation, or a sophisticated outlook. Most lyrics make you weep, or consider banishment for their writers, as they mimic Hallmark card phraseology and rhyme “together” with “forever” or “time” with “mind.” (Foul!!!) They’re not first-rate. They’re barely first-grade! You wonder where the depth of Oscar Hammerstein II, the style or Ira Gershwin, or the wit of Cole Porter went as you slog through one more number that says “I love you; you rock my world, hold me, and be my girl” but does it so uncreatively, sans elegance, sans construction, sans cleverness, sans all.
Stephen Sondheim is a brilliant lyricist. Words are his great talent, his ongoing crowning achievement. His music is of high caliber as well, but in his verbal verses, Sondheim shows he knows the world and how people view it. He can express depth and irony. His wit is boundless. Even in a one-joke pony, like “Can That Boy Foxtrot,?” there’s enough humor and sardonic bite that you don’t mind that the song depends on extending the “f” in “foxtrot” to indicate another activity done in pairs. The song entertains beyond its joke, beyond its purpose. A line like, “Who needs Albert Schweitzer when the lights are low?” not only comes in handy and 1:45 a.m. some nights but has smart internal rhyme and indicates a shrewdly brittle, yet resilient, outlook on life. (Don’t get me gushing about rhyming “personable” with “coercin’ a bull” or Frederick’s litany of literary references in “A Little Night Music’s” “Now.”)
Yes, “Foxtrot” is not the masterpiece the number that replaced it in “Follies,” “I’m Still Here,” is, but it plays beautifully. Lucas and Rene performed a mitzvah by preserving it, as does “Side by Side by Sondheim” and other revues. At Montgomery, Kim Carson gives it a tart read that shows her character’s delight in having found such a libidinous specimen who “often is a bore, but on the floor, he ain’t.” Lucas and Rene had to pull a moment out of the hat to find a place where “Foxtrot” would fit in their story, but thank goodness they did.
Even in a new, invented context, Sondheim’s songs have meaning and advance a story. “Marry Me a Little” has been adapted over the years. A 2012 production fiddled a little with the 1980 concept, and its playlist, but no matter how songs are sorted, they provide a way for the two characters to tell how they feel and what they would prefer their lives to be.
Also it’s enlighteningly enchanting to hear the lyric, “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” that was once intended to accompany the hauntingly charming leitmotif that introduces and plays throughout the score of “Follies.” It is exciting to realize the evolution of a musical as a knowing and commonly-thought “Marry Me a Little” is supplanted by a moving “Being Alive” or plaintive “Someone is Waiting.” And it’s marvelous to hear a rousing cry of hope and resolve in “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” a song you have to regret does not have a permanent place in “Anyone Can Whistle.”
Stephen Casey and his Montgomery cast are adroit at getting to the heart of a song. Kim Carson has a lovely and versatile voice that can cut, with taste and candor, directly to the comedy in a number or enthrall you with its clean, effortless tone is a heartfelt ballad.
Peter Carrier has a smaller voice that almost always remains in a speaking register, yet he can reach beautiful notes that accent the deceptive and effective plainness of his singing. Better yet, Carrier is a master of phrasing and of finding the right facial expression, gesture, or mannerism to enhance the sentiment of a lyric. His acting within a number is remarkable and brings “Marry Me a Little” to a lofty dramatic level in which you care about the situations Carrier’s character, simply called “Man,” faces.
Carson and Carrier make a great combination because they each create such a sincere and realistic character. They can show irony, angst, resignation, and disgust as they ask, in tandem though separate, “What do you do on a Saturday night alone?” Their seemingly incompatible voices — Carson’s rich and full of color, Carrier’s ordinary but conveying every ounce of context — blend sweetly in duets like “So Many People,” “Two Fairy Tales,” and “Uptown, Downtown.”
“Marry Me a Little” is modest in intent. Lucas and Rene concentrate on the songs and provide enough story to justify the gems they feared might be wasted. Yet, you fell as if you’ve seen a entire play unfold. Casey, Carson, and Carrier, abetted by Michele Ferdinand on a single piano, create a palpable world where singles resist, discuss, and give into both loneliness and the fear of a relationship. The Montgomery production remains entertaining while also taking the time to be touching.
The title song, done in duet, as each character expresses what he or she wants from an ideal relationship, is especially telling because, I think, in it Sondheim defines what most people want, companionship and love while preserving their freedom. In my reckless, feckless youth, I once made a partner cry while I sang the song because he wanted more than it requests or promises as it says, “Marry me a little. Love me just enough. Cry, but not too often. Play, but not too rough. Keep a tender distance, so we’ll both be free. That’s the way it ought to be. I’m ready,” and goes on to, “Oh how softly we’ll talk. Oh how lightly we’ll tread. All the stings, the ugly things, we’ll keep unsaid.”
See what I mean in praising Sondheim’s lyrics. This perceptive, sensitively composed verse goes unsung while show after show on Broadway gets by with sterile, maudlin drivel. It’s enough to make you wish Sondheim could go through a process like the one depicted in Thomas Gibbons’s “Uncanny Valley” at InterAct and live and work in perpetuity.
One thing is clear. His songs will last as long as theater has the good sense to produce his musicals, and artists like Lucas and the late Mr. Rene have the foresight to present the songs Sondheim chooses to discard.
Montgomery artistic director Tom Quinn helps in this preservation drive by mounting his sharp production of “Marry Me a Little.”
The show had some surprises. I am familiar with the 1980 staging and remember a different selection of songs from the one presented in Souderton. I drove to the theater singing, “That’s All That I Need” from “Saturday Night” and was shocked when it wasn’t sung.
I think my memory is at fault here. I won’t worry about what I didn’t hear. I’m happy to listen to Carrier croon “Beautiful Girls,” which was not cut and is always sung in “Follies.” Carson did a fine job in “Ah, But Underneath,” a number that is interchangeable with “The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie” in “Follies.” (Alexis Smith did “Lucy and Jessie” in the 1971 original production. Diana Rigg did “Ah, But Underneath” in the 1988 London revival at the Shaftesbury.) I’ve always been a fan of “There Won’t Be Trumpets.”
John Hobbie’s set approximates a Brooklyn apartment that can suit a man or a woman. It comes complete with cabinet space for Carrier’s character to store his groceries. (I was envious of the cereal boxes fitting so well.) Scott Anderson’s costumes are right for the characters.
“Marry Me a Little” runs through Sunday, May 3 at the Montgomery Theater, 124 N. Main Street, in Souderton, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. (A 7:30 p.m. performance is scheduled for Wednesday, April 29.) Tickets range from $32 to $26 and can be ordered by calling 215-723-9984 or by visiting www.montgomerytheater.org.