The Sondheim Review

Vol. 6, No. 2, Fall 1999


Putting It Together
After a successful run in L.A., Carol Burnett takes Sondheim's revue to Broadway
George Hearn takes on another Sondheim role in Putting It Together
Ruthie Henshall moves from Chicago to Putting It Together

News & Notes
A production of Company tours Mid-Atlantic states; Saturday Night scheduled for off-Broadway; Wise Guys in workshop; Do I Hear a Waltz? revised

National Report
Eric D. Schaeffer revives Sweeney Todd at the Signature
In Palo Alto, George and Dot get closer together in Sunday
The first professional production of Follies in New Mexico

International Report
West Side Story is a hit at the Stratford Festival
Sweeney and Assassins at the Edinburgh Fringe; a Company tour in Belgium and Holland

Merrily We Roll Along
Jason Alexander remembers his Broadway debut in this short-lived Sondheim/Furth show
For Ann Morrison, Merrily was both "wonderful and terrible"
Revision after revision, Merrily has had a bumpy road through various productions
The score contains many tunes you can hum

The Interview
Barbara Bryne recalls the creation of her roles in Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods

Bonus Article
In a high school in Los Angeles, a class studies Assassins and finds new meaning after the Littleton rampage

The Scrapbook
West Side Story

For Your Amusement
A solution to the Sondheim puzzle and an instrumental quiz for you

A remastered CD brings out even more in the original cast of Gypsy; Sean McDermott sings

Looking Ahead
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere


Before Seinfeld, 'George' was in Merrily
By Paul Salsini

It may have been a spectacular Broadway flop, but Merrily We Roll Along refuses to die. Rewritten and rewritten again, it seems to be still in a state of flux.

With its story told in a backwards fashion, and with an antihero at its center, it's a show that often confounds audiences. Yet the score remains one of Stephen Sondheim's most enduring and--to use the word that is usually used but everyone hates--accessible.

To recall the story of the 1981 production, The Sondheim Review talked to the member of the original cast who has gained the most fame. Long before he was the congenitally neurotic George Costanza on Seinfeld, Jason Alexander played the bombastic but generous producer Joe Josephson in Merrily. He was 19 years old, just finishing his junior year at Boston University, and it was his Broadway debut.

Although not many people saw that performance, eight years later Alexander won a Tony Award as best actor in a musical in 1989 for his various roles in Jerome Robbins' Broadway. One of his roles was another Sondheim character--he played Pseudolus to lead the cast in "Comedy Tonight" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

The voice on the phone was very George-like as Alexander answered TSR's questions.

He got the part, Alexander said, in a cattle-call audition conducted by Joanna Merlin, Hal Prince's casting director. "I remember walking in and doing my whole song. They were stopping people halfway
through theirs, but I got through the whole shebang."

What did he sing?

"I think I was one of those geeks who went to every audition and sang 'Corner of the Sky.'"

Prince was complimentary, Sondheim smiled, music director Paul Gemignani looked pleased and choreographer Ron Field "didn't look like he was going to keel over and die."

Alexander said he was interested in the Josephson role because he enjoyed creating characters different from himself. Also, he had grown up as a fan of such larger-than-life comedians as Zero Mostel, Sam Levene and Phil Silvers. He could imagine Josephson as a loud-mouthed, cigar-chomping Mike Todd.

"I was a lover of the history of musical theatre and vaudeville, and I had a sense of those guys. And I had a lot of brashness."

Alexander took part in a reading of the script, although it was considerably different from the one finally staged.

"So then they said, 'You're cast. But we're going to wait nine months.'"

While everyone waited, Alexander got a job in a casting office. Rehearsals finally began.

"It was very exciting. I remember Hal got up and spoke about what the piece was about. I thought at the time that a lot of the things he said must be in his head because I didn't see them on the page. I could smell a distance between the vision and the material. They weren't always in accord.

"I could see Hal's frustration with not having quite what he wanted to play with, and trying to figure out in a rehearsal situation how this unusual set was going to serve the show. It seemed like he was wrestling
with a whole bunch.

"I thought there was a certain degree of grasping at things when they started to write on T-shirts what our characters' relationships to one another were. And then writing on walls. That meant the information was not getting out in any other way."

One of the producers, the veteran Robert Fryer, would ask the young cast members if they had ideas.

"That struck me as unusual, that a seasoned producer would listen to a bunch of teenagers. They were looking for answers anywhere."

Alexander said, however, that he never saw Sondheim panic.

"In fact, I kept thinking that it was Steve's work that would get us to what was right about the show if it was exploited. I knew there were growing tensions between Steve and Hal, and certainly between Ron Field and Hal, and all of us felt those tensions. I was largely unaffected, but I don't know how those three leads were able to accomplish something extraordinary."

The leads, however, changed during rehearsals, with Jim Weissenbach, playing the central role of Franklin Shepard, replaced by Jim Walton.

"I knew that Jim Weissenbach was the son of Hal's college roommate, so if they were going to lower the boom on him, we could all go. But we were kids. We were thinking they were doing the hard stuff to make it better. But I don't remember that the problem was Jim Weissenbach. The problem in many ways was Franklin Shepard. It's a difficult role. For my money it's still innately unplayable."

Then came the first preview at the Alvin Theater. Alexander sounded like George telling a story over the table at Monk's diner.

"We were behind the curtain, and the buzz in the theater was phenomenal. I think you could measure it on a Voltmeter, it was so electric. Then the overture jazzed them way up.

"The curtain went up and within minutes we could see people whispering to each other. I'd be on stage for ten minutes, then off stage, and I'd come back and see empty seats. Then I'd see more. My recollection is that by the time the second act started, the theater was half-filled. It went from the mightiest feeling in the world to the most desolate in an hour."

When Field was replaced by Larry Fuller, the opening was delayed. Alexander remembered that at the opening night party he sang a spoof of "Like It Was"--"You and me/we're confusing them. I was drunk/I was mean."

Gossip and bad word-of-mouth had spread during the previews, so the negative reviews provided the final blow. In The New York Times, Frank Rich began his comments with the now-famous "As we all should probably have learned by now, to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one's heart broken at regular intervals."

The young cast was bewildered.

"So we gathered around Hal. 'What does this mean, Daddy?' And he tried to tell us it didn't mean anything. They were going to put up the closing notice, but it didn't mean anything. But of course it did."

The show closed after sixteen performances. The next day, the cast recorded the score for RCA Victor.

"It was the most unusual experience. It was an incredibly long day, and the last thing we recorded was 'Our Time.' We were a mess. We knew we'd never sing it again and we had all this hope and promise. We made our Broadway debuts in our teens, and we didn't know if it would ever happen again. We thought, 'Why us? Are we the reason it didn't work?' And then we said good-bye."

Alexander was asked to describe his fondest memory of the show. (You can see George leaning over the table.)

"Sondheim. He'd not written 'It's a Hit!' yet when we got into early rehearsals, and he told me he was writing a song for me and did I want to tell him anything about my voice. I told him I don't hear chromatic
scales. And he came back and my section was entirely chromatic scales. I said, 'You didn't believe me?' He said, 'I believed you, but it's time you learn.'

"The thing about Merrily was walking into a first-time situation with two guys who didn't come any bigger or greater. And they couldn't do anything but fall a little. If anything, Steve became more magnificent. At the start, when he asked us to call him 'Steve,' it was easier for me to do it then than at the end. Then I wanted to call him 'Mr. Sondheim.' That was more important than to be able to say that I introduced a new Sondheim song to the world."

In "Opening Doors," Alexander got to sing one of Sondheim's most memorable--and funniest--lines:

    Write more, work hard--
    Leave your name with the girl.
    Less avant-garde--
    Leave your name with the girl.
    Just write a plain old melodee dee dee dee dee dee
    Dee dee dee dee dee dee

The final lines are sung to the tune of "Some Enchanted Evening," a tribute to Sondheim's mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, and a smiling response to those who claim Sondheim's songs lack melody.

"When I heard that, I just thought what a tremendous thing for him to do, poke that kind of fun at his own criticism. And I knew that was my moment in the show."

Did the audiences get the joke?

"The audiences never did not get it. I felt bad when they burst into applause because I wasn't sure of their intention."

Alexander has had other stage experience and has starred in television musicals (Bye Bye Birdie, Cinderella) and movies (Pretty Woman, Love! Valour! Compassion!), but will probably always be remembered as George. During the nine seasons the show was on the air, he earned six Emmy Award nominations and three Golden Globe nominations and was the winner of two American Comedy Awards, a 1993 American Television Award and a 1995 Screen Actors Guild Award.

Seinfeld, he said, has given him "the opportunity to not work if I don't have to," but lately, he has been producing and directing. His film directing debut was a romantic comedy, For Better or Worse, in which he also starred.

One of the properties in development is a stage musical of Marty, in which he would play the title role. Also involved in the project: Jim Weissenbach.

Alexander said he has another dream and has spoken to Sondheim about it.

"I have wanted forever to direct a film of Sweeney Todd. It's just sitting there."

Paul Salsini is the editor of The Sondheim Review.

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