Cricket's Notebook "Wednesday, 17 May, 2005 12:59 p m: <BR>"Entertainment: pure and simple"</"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


Tuesday, 17 May, 2005 12:59 p m:
"Entertainment: pure and simple"

"To attend the Goodspeed Opera production of SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS is to be re-introduced to what the American musical was all about: to entertain, pure and simple."
===Carl A. Rossi in his review of "7 Brides for 7 Brothers"

At last, Carl Rossi, you have tipped us off to the roots of your uncompromising contempt for the continually ground-breaking work Stephen Sondheim has been doing nearly all his life: His musicals don't "entertain" you.

They Do "entertain" me, though.

You see, Carl, "entertainment" hasn't anything to do with subject-matter, and Nothing Whatever to do with art.
I mean, the subject-matter of "Lady in The Dark" is psychoanalysis; and the "Poor Jenny" song in its very first verse says she burned down the house and burned up her family by (badly) trimming the Xmas Tree, but Kurt Weill's Classic Musical is not, in your canon, a start of the vile degradation of "entertainment, pure and simple".
For years both Broadway and Turtle Lane have refused to try modern revivals of "Mack & Mable" or "Pal Joey" or "Merrily We Roll Along" because they don't have happy endings --- but a lot of people highly prize the Original Cast Recordings of just such "unEntertaining" failures.
And not too long ago Speakeasy Stage mounted a production of "Saturday Night". It was as much a "pure entertainment" musical as "Crazy for You" --- which it resembles. (You will Love when the Reagle Players production opens.) Well, except that all the songs were new-minted, with tap-routines and a plot about a flier taken on some stocks the day before the '29 Crash ending, with lessons learned and true-love triumphant. Pure Entertainment Personified.
Carl, that was Stephen Sondheim's first full-length musical --- and, despite its entertainment-purity, his first Failure: it never even got produced, no matter how much rich-creamy-goodness and nostalgie it had crammed into it.

You didn't have to wait for Goodspeed Opera to revive "7 Brides" to find "entertaining" musicals, though. The Broadway entries in the Pure-Entertainment sweepstakes lately have been that Billy Joel musical and "Mama Mia!" --- both of which have had longer runs and better investor-returns than most Sondheim musicals --- and "The Producers" (And have you noticed that the ads for "The Producers" have been diverting attention from the subtly witty book in favor of bigger and bigger pictures of a sexy broad that so far as I remember never showed up in Mel Brooks' original movie?)

You moan that "Sweeney Todd" makes light of murder and of canibalism --- a moral stance you find reprehensible --- but do you remember the motor that drives the still-revived classic "Arsenic & Old Lace"? It's the race between a criminal (surgically disguised as Boris Karloff) and a pair of lovely, soft-hearted Christian ladies to determine which of these two Serial Killers could claim the most snuffs! Why is that any more moral than "Sweeney Todd" --- is it just because they don't Sing It?

If you want to bitch about the decay of the American Musical from its pure-entertainment excellence, I think you should go back to Bob Fosse's first complete-control director/choreographer stint: a show about a congenital loser --- a taxi-dancing "virgin" named Charity Hope Valentine. Or perhaps a little later in a show that extols the aspirations of female murderers to have their lurid stories catapult them into tabloid fame and even show-business careers. Bob Fosse's ultimate intention seems to have been to embarrass everyone as much and as often as possible --- yet it's not him but Sondheim that you vilify.

And before Sondheim's "Sweeney" desecrated the sacred purity of the entertainment musical, wasn't there a blasphemous endorsement of promiscuity, homosexuality, anti-Semitism and Nazism in the Weimar Republic, with unfortunately singable songs by Kander and Ebb? I wonder what happened to That loser of a musical....

And what about that musical about a handsome, selfish wastrel who rises to the necessities of providing for a possibly female first-child by committing a robbery so badly bungled he dies at the end of Act One! No "entertainment" in that one, is there?

Carl, I suspect your quarrel with Stephen Sondheim stems from the simple fact that he can see rich humor in satire and irony, and apparently you can't.

As a matter of fact, Sondheim said his say on the "pure entertainment" school way back in "Merrily We Roll Along" (It flopped, by the way) when the words/music duo who are the heroes heard the first producer to look at their work say:

"Gimme a tune ya c'n hum.
Gimme a dum, dum, dum-de-dum.
Whatever happened ta
Dum, dum, dum-de-DUMB?"
[Emphasis mine.]

As I see it, though, Sondheim has never turned his back on pure entertainment at all. You may think "Company" a tragic attack on the institution of marriage, but I defy any audience to remain unEntertained by the "Side by Side by Side" extravaganza, the bubblingly cute "Barcelona" number or the ironically satirical "Whadda Ya Wanna Get Married For?" lament. And, for an anti-marriage musical, it ends with the most ringing affirmation of the necessity of married love ever written: "Being Alive". Rather than finding "Assassins" trivializing, I see it as a hilarious pillorying of all these would-be murderers as the sick, silly losers they were. (I wonder why you finger Sondheim as the villain here, and ignore Sir Andrew's turning a Fascist slut into a tragic operatic heroine with only the Communist Che Guevara as her critic. Surely you can spare some sauce for that goose?)

And, Carl, one thing you ignore is that no one makes a music by himself anymore. While he may be "the muscle" behind everything he's done since "Company" Harold Prince gets "First-Director" royalties on a lot of his work; and though it's cute, I think "Anyone Can Whistle" is a laughable disaster because when he worked on it Sondheim had yet to find a book-writer as talented and innovative as he is himself.

And, by the way, I didn't get to Goodspeed to see "7 Brides" but I remember the original movie as fondly as you do. Or, at least I did until the last time I saw it, when the rubber-cement and paperclips holding the plot together became obvious. What makes the movie memorable is the same thing that makes Sondheim's shows memorable: the original approach of the guy writing the music and lyrics --- in that case Johnny Mercer.

The success of "Company" opened doors for all sorts of talented creators for whom "pure entertainment" was taken an obvious bedrock necessity upon which more innovative ideas could be tried. Sy Coleman's "You're Nothing Without Me" could never find its way into a Broadway musical if Stephen Sondheim hadn't first broken the mold.

What Sondheim musicals need is equally talented and innovative directors --- and I think Rick Lombardo brought both to "Sweeney Todd and to "Into The Woods".
I'm hoping he tries "Merrily" next......


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide