Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by George Furth
Now at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton St, London, SW1Y 4DN
An underrated gem from the oeuvre of Mr Sondheim, this tale of the disintegration of a trio of friendships across three decades is told in reverse chronology, a move that gives it real edge. It is brilliantly served in this intimate production at the Chocolate Factory.
Sondheim and Furth revised the show for a landmark production at Leicester Haymarket in 1992 and the star of that production, Maria Friedman, now returns to direct. In the intervening years she has, of course, become our pre-eminent interpreter of Sondheim. Her close affinity for the work shines through as she locates the emotional heart of the piece and gives it great fluidity and pace.
A wonderful example of how you should never judge a show simply on its first outing, it ran 16 performances on Broadway in 1981, and it has since had numerous successful stagings. Sondheim now admits that having too young a cast scuppered it first time out. If they’re too young, during the older section they can look like kids playing dress-up.
Opening at a cocaine-fuelled party among the jaded LA move set, our ambivalent hero, music composer turned film producer, Franklin Shepherd asks what went wrong? As the years roll back we see how his friendship with his song-writing partner, Charlie, breaks down over their divergent ambitions and the book grapples with the eternal chestnut of an artist “selling out”. We see the two and their best mate Mary struggle through the hungry years, where Franklin is distracted into an affair by Gussie, a rapacious Broadway star. They break up two marriages, but always on the sidelines there’s Mary, deadpan and wise and secretly carrying a candle for him. We share in the youthful exuberance of their early years, putting on satirical reviews in Greenwich Village dives, and we end up back at the beginning, on the roof of their walk-up apartment watching the orbiting Sputnik, all three buzzing with hope.
The genius of the piece is how a play about the sentimentality of friendship and not wanting friends to change, itself avoids easy sentiment. The reverse chronology achieves this by cutting against the grain of sentiment. The present frames the past and the past is always there.
As for the music, it is sublime. Sondheim here displays his brilliance at writing any type of song – from killer ballads such as Good Thing Going, to poignant love songs like Not a Day Goes By, to devilishly clever satires such as The Blob (about New York’s critical cognoscenti), to vibrant quartet Opening Doors, to review sketches like Bobby and Jackie and Jack, which would do justice to Mike Nichols and Elaine May. He even sends up his lazy critics in the lyric “You need a song you can hum, you need a song that goes dum dum dum di dum”.
Previous productions have grappled with how to make Franklin more sympathetic (as if we need a pill) and this one solves it simply by casting someone with astonishing movie star charisma in the lead. Mark Umbers is a scintillating talent and he makes Franklin’s unwittingly selfish use of those around him, and their slavish devotion, totally understandable. It anchors the piece. Jenna Russell is gloriously dry as Mary, and Damian Humbley sings divinely, especially the difficult breakdown number Franklin Shepherd Inc. Josefina Gabrielle finds the vulnerability beneath the hard-bitten Gussie who quips, “One day I made myself up and now I never change it” and in the small but pivotal role of Beth, the first wife, Claire Foster is quietly moving.