Sondheim Shows in Concert
More and more, in a range of venues, Sondheim’s works are being presented in concert on bare stages
News & Notes
Will there be three Sondheim shows on Broadway next season?; two songs will be added to Saturday Night for Chicago
Kelsey Grammer stars as Sweeney and Christine Baranski is Mrs. Lovett in a concert presentation of Sweeney Todd in Los Angeles
Frederica von Stade is Desiree for the Houston Grand Opera
Students at a college in Alabama win praise for Passion
Assassins presented in Israel on the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination
Company premieres in Japan and Night Music will follow
West Side Story is seen again in Paris
Anyone Can Whistle
It may have flopped, but Anyone Can Whistle has much to praise
Original cast member Harvey Evans remembers a delirious time
Martin Gottfried’s new biography describes Angela Lansbury’s perilous journey
An examination of the score
A group of young actors have fun putting on Whistle
The Scrapbook: Anyone Can Whistle
In the second of two articles, we talk to more regional directors who keep coming back to Sondheim shows
Divas sing Sondheim
For Your Amusement
A solution to our acronym challenge
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere
Grammer attends the tale of Sweeney Todd
By Terri Roberts
We know that Kelsey Grammer can sing the Frasier theme song, but the question in Los Angeles in March was whether he could sing Sweeney Todd. The answer: It depended on the song.
In what was billed as a concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at the Ahmanson Theater, Grammer traded his hilarious TV portrayal of the arrogant-yet-endearing radio talk-show shrink, Dr. Frasier Crane, for the vengeful plottings of a murderous barber. His was a more reflective Sweeney than is usually seen. Grammer’s tender handling of “My Friends” suited his more affectionate approach to the role, but when it came to the soaring heights of “Pretty Women,” he simply lacked the vocal strength to carry it through.
Although his voice was flat, Grammer was right on the mark with Sweeney’s heart; his anguish at the loss of Lucy was deep and affecting. And his comedy background helped bring a jaunty edge and droll sense of humor to Sweeney’s lighter moments.
Another TV sitcom star, Christine Baranski (Cybill), was a big crowd pleaser as Mrs. Lovett. Baranski had the unenviable task of trying to make Angela Lansbury’s signature Sondheim role her own. The audience embraced her from the start, but it wasn’t until the rollicking “A Little Priest” that she found her own sense of sauciness. (Baranski just happens to be making a guest appearance on an upcoming episode of Frasier.)
Although Sweeney was produced by Reprise! Broadway’s Best in Concert, this was not really a concert production. The only evidence were the stationary mikes scattered around the stage, which forced awkward breaks in the action as the actors stepped up to sing. As a result, voices did not blend properly , overall sound quality was uneven, and many voices were difficult to hear. Also disturbing was having the speakers stacked on the floor and blasting directly at the audience, rather than suspended from above.
Stationary mikes aside, the show tried to be a full-scale production. Actors were off book and in full makeup and costume (with some costume changes) and numerous props and set pieces were used. It was all quite impressive, but with limited rehearsal time and so much focus on so many production elements, there were many missed moments and underdeveloped characterizations. The responsibility for these problems falls somewhere between the director, Calvin Remsberg, and the Reprise! vision of mounting a concert production. Reprise! would do well to commit to one form or the other and not try to do both. Such indecisiveness ultimately made this Sweeney look like the dress rehearsal of a highly promising but still under-rehearsed show.
This is not to dismiss the triumphant aspects of the show, starting with the evening’s most delightful surprise, Neil Patrick Harris (star of the old TV show Doogie Howser, M.D. and fresh from the tour of Rent). His fully realized, touching portrayal of the simple innocent Toby and his poignant rendition of “Not While I’m Around” were clear highlights of the show.
Roland Rusinek made a splendid Beadle and garnered many laughs during “Parlor Songs.” Davis Gaines was a heartfelt Anthony whose gorgeous “Johanna” sent chills through the theater. Scott Waara was a vocally strong and confident Pirelli, but needed more flamboyance. Melissa Manchester was miscast as the Beggar Woman, mostly playing her as a lost, pouty child rather than a woman gone over the edge. Her sexual overtures to Sweeney and Anthony lacked any true motivation.
Dale Kristien’s Johanna was competent, but lacked tension in her relationship with the Judge. As Turpin, Ken Howard was strangely subdued and missed the character’s obsessive lasciviousness. His self-flagellation scene, deleted in most productions, was halfhearted and unfocused.
On opening night, Sondheim was presented with the ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Founders Award for lifetime achievement in musical theatre. He accepted the honor with a shy but beaming smile, many affectionate hugs and a few brief words of thanks.
Terri Roberts is the West Coast correspondent for The Sondheim Review and a writer in Los Angeles.
Michael Phillips, Los Angeles Times: “Grammer–comfortable in a nice, easy bass-baritone range- -couldn’t muster the vocal heft (or the pitch) the most difficult songs demand. His duets with Ken Howard, surprisingly diffident as Judge Turpin, added an unwanted subtextual plea: Please, sir. We want some more time to practice…Baranski, by contrast, was ready to rip. Working two or three steps beyond the concept of ‘presentational acting,’ her Mrs. Lovett may have resorted to one too many takes , lolls of the tongue and transition-filling bits of shtick. But Baranksi’s such a skilled audience favorite, fully aware of her low-comic wiles, she gave things a welcome charge.”
Robert Hofler, Variety: “Maybe a little transposition downward would have helped Grammer, but he sang woefully under pitch, struggling vocally throughout the evening. Sheer personality wouldn’t cut it here. So much of Sweeney’s character is etched in song; the role demands a real singer. Then there was Christine Baranski’s Mrs. Lovett, the Lady Macbeth of this whole affair. It’s as if Olive Oyl were attempting an impersonation of Tallulah Bankhead. And that was just her singing voice! Baranski produced a comic screech for ‘The Worst Pies in London’ and a lovely mezzo for ‘Wait’ and ‘By the Sea,’ an unlikely showstopper.”
Giving the songs a more romantic value: an interview with Kelsey Grammer
By Terri Roberts
Before rehearsals for the 20th-anniversary concert production of Sweeney Todd in Los Angeles, Kelsey Grammer said that he always wanted to play the role but had never seen the show.
“I had listened to the music (years ago) when I was doing Othello on the road,” he said. “I would drive from one town to the next and would listen to it in my car–in the dead of winter, freezing my ass off, driving my old Fiat around with my dog in the back seat.”
Still, the dream persisted for the classically trained actor. And it was decades later when the opportunity finally presented itself through Frasier costar David Hyde Pierce, who plays the psychiatrist’s fastidious brother, Niles.
Two or three years ago, Pierce was doing some vocal coaching with Calvin Remsberg, who played the Beadle in Sweeney’s first national tour and who directed the Reprise! production. “Calvin mentioned that he would love to do a 20-year revival, or an homage, to the piece,” Grammer recalled. “Somehow they got onto the idea that I could play the role. And David came to me and said, ‘Oh, this voice guy I know is interested in putting together a production of Sweeney Todd, blah blah blah.’ And I said, ‘Sure! Let’s talk.’ A couple years later he finally calls and says, ‘Yeah, we really meant it.’ So that’s how it happened.”
Grammer worked with musical director Larry Frank to learn the complex music and to sharpen his voice. He conceded that his interpretation was not as dark as the role is traditionally played.
“The way I see singing Sweeney is probably a bit more lyrical than has been performed before,” Grammer explained. “I’m really singing the songs, giving them more of a romantic value–especially the first couple of things, ‘The Barber and His Wife’ and ‘My Friends.’ ‘My Friends’ is definitely a love song. There’s really no dark edge in it; it’s really just being delighted to see somebody he’s at home with. So the overall effect to the opening of the act might offer a slightly brighter tone to who Sweeney is.
“But then he certainly darkens right up with that ‘Epiphany’ thing. And ‘Pretty Women’ is such a gorgeous song as well. There’s really kind of crooning value I’m trying to bring to it that I think works for the character. So the darkness is not the prevalent tone that you get from him at first. Such are my hopes, at least.”
The concert was a reunion of sorts for Grammer and Christine Baranski, who played Mrs. Lovett. In the 1983 Playwrights Horizons workshop production of Sunday in the Park with George, Grammer was the Soldier with the wooden companion; Baranski was Yvonne, the snooty wife of George’s artist friend, Jules.
“It was very exciting to be involved with Sunday in the Park,” he recalled. “I remember the first time Stephen actually walked in with some handwritten notes and a song that were put together for my voice. That was one of the great highlights of my career. It really was. I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ That was (he begins to sing) ‘Sundays were made for soldiers and girls, mademoiselle…'”
In contrast, Grammer had less favorable memories when it came to James Lapine, the author and director of the show. “I was, shall we say, the company mouthpiece. I stood up and yelled
at him, ‘If you say the word f— to another actor in this company, I’m going to come down there and kick your ass!’ Needless to say, it was a very tempestuous rehearsal period for me and James Lapine. I just had the feeling that he didn’t have as much respect for our craft as he should.
“Now I have nothing against James Lapine. He wrote me a nice note afterward about why I wasn’t going to be going to the Broadway production. I’d be delighted to see him now and to kick it around because, in retrospect, it was actually all pretty funny.”