“Married, a little”
by Terri Roberts
News and Notes
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Critical reactions to the revival of West Side Story on Broadway
Rob Weiner-Kendt reviews West Side Story for TSR
Sondheim in the Classroom
College students explore Sweeney Todd
High school kids compare Romeo and Juliet with West Side Story
Making words dance in A Little Night Music
A California university works on Into The Woods for a school year
Sondheim lyrics help students learn to speak English
Larry Gelbart remembers co-writing the book for Forum
East West Players makes a double bill of Marry Me a Little and Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years
Hugh Panaro becomes Georges Seurat in Seattle
Kurt Peterson and Victoria Mallory have a history with Sondheim
Playwright Erin Kamler was influenced by Sondheim
Night Music in Cincinnati
Tennessee theatres pair up for Marry Me a Little
Chicago sees Into the Woods and Pacific Overtures
Company in Arizona
Cincinnati Playhouse presents Marry Me a Little
A Little Night Music at Broward Stage Door in south Florida
Sunday at Seattle’s 5th Avenue
Assassins in Indiana
Review: Arthur Laurents’ second memoir, Mainly on Directing
Review: Allegro fully recorded
Singing Sondheim: songs on new recordings
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
Married, a little
Short shows by Sondheim and Brown form an East West double bill
by Terri Roberts
A couple of years ago, director Jules Aaron was having dinner with Tim Dang, artistic director of East West Players (EWP). Aaron had recently directed Master Class at Dang’s Los Angeles-based theatre, and two decades earlier had staged Marry Me a Little at South Coast Rep in Orange County. Dang is widely known throughout Los Angeles as a huge Sondheim fan; largely under his direction, EWP has built a solid reputation for its Asian-flavored productions of Sondheim musicals. Besides the obvious Pacific Overtures , the company has produced Passion, Sweeney Todd, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and more.
As Dang and Aaron chatted about potential projects, the director proposed doing Marry Me. “I thought it might be an interesting show to do with two Asian actors,” Aaron said in a recent interview. “Since you tend to build the characters through the actors, it would be a very different kind of experience.”
An intrigued Dang replied, “What do you think of doing it on a double bill with The Last Five Years? I don’t think Sondheim and Brown have been done on the stage together.” Jason Robert Brown, a 1999 Tony Award winner for his score for Parade, is the composer/lyricist of this other two-character work.
“I said it was an interesting idea,” Aaron continued, “and then I didn’t hear anything. But I knew he was considering it for the season. Then I went to see another play at EWP, and Peter Kuo, the publicist, said, ‘Congratulations!’ When I said, ‘Why?’ he said, ‘Oh, we’re having you back.’ And I picked up the season brochure and there it was — me doing Marry Me a Little, and I was very, very pleased.” The double-bill opened at EWP on May 13, 2009, and was extended to June 2.
The shows have many parallels. Both are two-character, relationship-focused, one-act pieces. Each deals in its own way with different aspects of isolation and aloneness. And each show employs dual perspectives in its storytelling.
At EWP there was another, purely coincidental, similarity: Both productions were cast with same-named actors. Michael Dalager (Giorgio in EWP’s Passion) and Jennifer Hubilla (Kim in U.S. and U.K. tours of Miss Saigon) starred in Marry Me, directed by Aaron. Michael K. Lee (Pacific Overtures and Miss Saigon on Broadway) and Jennifer Paz (Les Misérables on Broadway; Miss Saigon’s first U.S. tour) were cast in The Last Five Years, which was directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera. (Rivera previously directed Paz in a much praised 2003 staging of Brown’s Songs for a New World.)
But there were many differences, too. The Last Five Years has two clearly defined characters who recount their relationship from different starting points: Jamie, an aspiring writer, moves from first-date excitement to heartbroken marriage-over acknowledgement, while Cathy, an aspiring actress, begins at the painful end of the marriage and travels back in time to its hopeful beginning.
Conversely, the generic characters of Marry Me are identified as “Man” and “Woman.” Marry Me is a loosely connected collection of trunk songs. The tissue-thin plot of two singles who have never met contemplating yet another Saturday night alone in their neighboring New York apartments leaves plenty of room for directorial interpretation.
“It’s one of those musicals that has to come organically out of the characters and what happens to them on this particular Saturday evening,” Aaron explained. “And you have to have a certain emotional arc to the show in order to reach the eleven o’clock numbers — ‘Marry Me a Little’ and ‘Happily Ever After.’ The rest of it takes you to where you’re able to deal with what you’ve gone through that night so you can go to sleep. You can use the characters’ own invented back stories, as long as they’re conducive to this particular night and going through the arc that’s suggested by the minimal stage directions and the lyrics of the songs.”
Because the shows shared the same performance space at EWP, rehearsals were divided into four-hour shifts. Marry Me worked mornings and Sunday nights; Last Five Years had afternoons and evenings. They shared designers, stage managers and a musical director. But scenic designer John H. Binkley faced the biggest challenge — creating a set that would serve the different needs and visions of each show.
Marry Me began the evening in a small, lived-in Brooklyn apartment that served as the individual home to both characters. As the two moved throughout the show, each unaware of his or her counterpart, their actions mirrored or complemented each other just as their inner lives and their apartments did. The device was used to great comic effect as well as tender consequence. “It’s interesting that the characters share one space even though they’re in two difference places,” said Rivera.
“Then you go to The Last Five Years, and there are two actors sharing the same time and space but in two different places — they only meet in the center of it and then split off again. Their stories are interconnected in some ways, but they don’t really connect the way they should because of the setup, so there’s this perspective of separation and different points of view, yet sharing the same story.”
At intermission the Marry Me set was cleared to reveal a more minimalist design for The Last Five Years. A small platform for musical director/pianist Marc Macalintal and a guitarist sat in front of a large framed screen with Binkley’s sketched projections of two trees in various stages of seasonal bloom and decay. The images began at opposite ends of the screen and moved closer together or further apart as dictated by the course of the relationship and the character that each represented.
Ivy Y. Chou’s costumes also beautifully charted the five-year change. Jamie, happy at the start, began in all white and ended in all black, while Cathy started in black, mourning her failed marriage, and ended in optimistic white. It was not about good and bad but rather about beginnings and endings, the birth and death of a life together. That terrain is native ground for Sondheim, of course, but Brown’s lovely score traverses it well and finds its own paths.
“I think the intention is to do two things with the evening,” said Aaron. “It’s to contrast and compare the two composers, although to what degree Brown has been influenced by Sondheim is debatable, because I don’t believe he looks at Sondheim as a mentor. But what the shows have in common is a composer who is a fabulous lyricist, who examines the nature of relationships in a very articulate way and who deals with our expectations of what relationships are going to be like and our realization of what they really are.”
“When Jason is compared to Sondheim, he cringes,” said Rivera. “It’s great to be acknowledged as the next Sondheim. Yet, as an artist, he wants to have his own voice.”
Added Aaron, “What I like about Marry Me is that it’s wonderful at showing how we deal with the ordinary things we do at home, contrasted with the elaborateness of our fantasies. Also, it deals very strongly with how we’re a product of expectations. Sondheim very pithily gets this in his lyrics and his wonderful music. I love the show. It’s something that still can make me laugh out loud and move me to tears. It’s so bittersweet and so elegant — in an hour and seven minutes, it tells us so much about our disappointments and hopes and dreams.” |TSR|
TERRI ROBERTS is TSR’s West Coast correspondent.