‘Short Cuts’: A long lost Stephen Sondheim musical

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A technical monkey wrench led to the cancellation of the first “Short Cuts” screening of the new season at the Garden Cinemas in Norwalk last month.

The programming was set — the Terrence McNally film “Andre’s Mother” and an Alan Bennett short “An Englishman Abroad” — when it became apparent on the night of the screening that the just-installed digital projection system was incompatible with the formats of the two shorts.

A very gracious sold-out house stayed for coffee and refreshments and I went to work with “Play With Your Food” producers Nancy Diamond and Carole Schweid to regroup and reschedule.

The technical problems were fixed and I am happy to note that tonight at 7:30 p.m. we will be showing “Andre’s Mother” — which I wrote about elsewhere on this blog — and a different second film, the rarely screened Stephen Sondheim musical for television “Evening Primrose.” A good portion of the original ticket holders are set to return but some seats are still available.

The Sondheim musical was shown once on ABC, and then vanished into thin air.

Composer-lyricist Sondheim teamed up with writer James Goldman — the same duo that would create the landmark show “Follies” five years later — for an eerie hour-long musical that contains two of Sondheim’s most beautiful songs, “Take Me to the World” and “I Remember.”

Sondheim worked on the piece when he was in the middle of making his transition from being the go-to man for sophisticated lyrics (his contribution to “Gypsy” and “West Side Story”) to his position as the greatest Broadway composer-lyricist of the 1970s and beyond (launched with the spectacular success of “Company” in 1970).

One of the reasons “Evening Primrose” has not been available on video before is that no one could find a decent copy of the original broadcast (horrible bootlegs have been in circulation for 40 years).

For many years there were only two copies of the show in existence — a tape kept in the archives of the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan and a 16mm copy of a tape in Sondheim’s personal collection. Both suffered damage and decay over the years.

Fortunately Jane Klain of the Paley Center found another 16mm print in the CBS Tape Archive a few years ago and that version was spruced up for DVD release. None of the copies preserved the original color transmission of “Evening Primrose” so the DVD is in black-and-white.

Actually, black-and-white seems apropos for this creepy musical which sometimes plays like a predecessor to the “The Stepford Wives.”

The piece is set inside a Manhattan department store where a group of eccentrics have been living for years — hiding out during store hours and then taking over the place at night.

Anthony Perkins stars as a poet who thinks he can find cheap lodgings in the store, but who quickly finds out that once you join the night people you can never leave the store (those who try to get out are turned into mannequins).

The Perkins character falls for a beautiful young woman (played by Charmian Carr, Liesl in the film version of “The Sound of Music”) who made the mistake of falling asleep in the store when she was a girl and who has been longing to see the world outside ever since.

The downbeat final moments of “Evening Primrose” anticipate the ending of the Ira Levin novel “The Stepford Wives” six years later.

Sondheim has always had an interest in the macabre but he wouldn’t express it this openly again until “Sweeney Todd” came along more than a decade later.

Fans of “Psycho” and other Perkins movies will probably be shocked to learn that the actor had a strong singing voice (he sang in the 1960 Frank Loesser musical “Greenwillow” and was signed to star in “Company,” but asked to be replaced so that he could start a new career as a director).

Charmian Carr gives a very touching performance and sings beautifully (sadly, she dropped out of the business when she married a man who wanted her to stay at home).

“Evening Primrose” fills in a gap in musical theater history, showing us the moment 44 years ago when a great composer-lyricist began to find his own unique style. Tickets for tonight’s show can be ordered at www.jibproductions.org

Joe Meyers

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