As a small but significant number of people started to walk out of the Stephen Sondheim short film “Evening Primose” last week in Norwalk, it seemed to reinforce the notion of the composer-lyricist’s controversial position in the American musical theater.
Although he has long been revered, Sondheim’s shows have never been taken to heart by the mass audience in the manner of other Broadway classics of his time such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “A Chorus Line” and “Chicago.”
The songs he’s written have been widely embraced, but the shows he’s written them for are often bitter pills for audiences who think musicals should be affirmative and “fun.”
“Evening Primrose” is a film commisioned for television in 1966 for which Sondheim wrote a number of beautiful tunes, but the macabre story by James Goldman about a New York underground group of people who secretly live in department stores gets on people’s nerves (and I can only imagine what the folks who walked out would have thought of the horror movie finish in which the hero and heroine are turned into mannequins after trying to escape!).
Four years after Sondheim did the TV film he wrote the songs and lyrics for “Company,” the show about single and marrried life in Manhattan that launched the peak 1970s phase of his career (which would include “Follies,” “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd”).
None of these shows ran as long as “Grease!” or “The Wiz” but they attracted much critical praise and a devoted cult of admirers.
“Company” and the other 1970s landmarks shows have all been revived on Broadway in recent years, but generally under the auspices of non-profit companies or as special benefit concerts.
Last week, Image Entertainment released a DVD of the special concert performance of “Company” that was put on by the New York Philharmonic in the spring of 2011 and then shown in movies around the country as a special attraction.
The Lincoln Center concert features a mixed-bag cast of stage and TV stars who had very little rehearsal time before they did a week’s worth of shows with the Philharmonic, but they make a terrific ensemble.
Neil Patrick Harris shows true star power at the center of the musical, as the 35-year-old bachelor Bobby, who has mixed feelings about getting married after observing his married friends. Stand-outs in the ensemble include Katie Finneran who does a killer version of one of Sondheim’s toughest songs, “Not Getting Married Today,” and Patti LuPone whose version of “The Ladies Who Lunch” goes over like gangbusters.
But, the visiting TV folk — Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men” and Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central — hold their own, especially in the witty book scenes in between the musical numbers.
I’ve seen many versions of this show, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard better readings of George Furth’s very amusing script.