Monday, April 14, 2014

Putting It Together


I had occasion to look at my less than prodigious output in this forum recently and came to the shocking conclusion that I have written roughly 250 MNM Intermittent Film Review Columns since I began this phase of my illustrious career. I was just tickled and immediately made an appointment at Elizabeth Arden for extra Botox (not that I need any) and a pedicure as a sort of celebration. I tried to come up with an appropriate way of marking the occasion and, as the repairs have just been completed at Chateau Maine following the episode of the Scrawcrunches,  I decided to hold a fabulous sit down dinner for all of those who have made my little trifles of film reviews so successful over the last several years. Consequently, last night Joseph, Madame Rose, Mr. Brad, Nurse Lynn, Nurse Tameka, Mr. Pepper, Vito Carducci, Fajer and Hellmann, Madame Jerry and all of the other people who have made my little adventures so special sat down to dinner in my newly refurbished dining room, a scale replica of the Chapelle Saint Louis done in a sort of aluminum and rubber techno-gothic.

Dinner was catered by Wolfgang Puck and his minions using my new gourmet kitchen with the granite countertops, subzero freezer and three tiers of ovens. A lovely little sole meuniere with an escargot appetizer, potatoes lyonnaise, vegetable medley and bananas foster for dessert. After dinner, it was absolutely necessary for there to be some entertainment so I put together a little one woman show for my guests where I did many of my most famous numbers atop the dining table amongst the dishes. The thirteen costume changes in the Butler's pantry were a little inconvenient but I proved to the crowd that I've still got it. I finished off the evening with my big number, The Saga of Toni, from my new film, Goodfollies leaving that crowd of true Hollywood insiders more than ready to reanoint me queen of the musical film. Madame Rose, as my publicist, made sure David and Liza's camera crew were on hand as they're no longer needed in New York and promises me a VH-1 special at the very least.

Once the last guest had departed, I retired to the home theater, looking for something to keep the emotional energy of the evening flowing. I wanted a film record of a brilliant theatrical performance - a great star returning to her audience and giving them something special and rewarding. Instead, I found the new DVD release of Stephen Sondheim's Putting It Together featuring Carol Burnett. Carol and I have been buddies for years, although we did have a bit of a falling out when she cast me as the horse in her parody of National Velvet on her television show, and I expected great things from her return to the Broadway musical stage. She shone. The entertainment she appeared in, however, should have been left lying fallow under some rock.

Putting It Together is an intimate review of songs taken from various sources over the last forty years. The connecting thread is that all are the work of Stephen Sondheim, considered by most cognoscenti to be the finest composer/lyricist the Broadway stage has ever produced. While many of Sondheim's shows or songs are not well known to the general public, his stature has grown in recent years as there has been a reappraisal of his work and its influence and more routine revivals of his shows such as CompanyFollies and Into The Woods. One of his shows, the darkly comic Sweeney Todd has moved into modern opera repertory. While few can name many of his songs, short of Send In The Clowns, more and more of them are being covered and making their way into commercial jingles, muzak, film soundtracks, and other threads of the American musical fabric making them more familiar when heard.

In 1976, when Sondheim was still relatively obscure outside of the New York theater community, several British performers put together a revue of his work to date - simple presentations of his songs out of context so they could be admired for their artistry and brilliance of construction. This show, Side by Side by Sondheim was a success in both London and New York and there was talk for years of doing something similar with his later work.

In 1992 Sondheim, together with Julia McKenzie, one of the original British creators and performers of Side by Side by Sondheim tackled this project. The result was Putting it Together (named after a song from his Sunday in the Park with George that had gained currency through a Barbra Streisand cover and a Xerox commercial). Rather than a straightforward presentation of the songs, the two created a situation (an upper crust dinner party) and characters (an older couple, a younger couple and a narrator/outsider) who sang the songs in a new context in a sort of free form plot. The show was mounted off Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club where it was chiefly noted for returning Julie Andrews to the musical stage after an absence of some thirty years. Despite respectable, if not glowing notices, and sellout crowds, it did not transfer to Broadway and quietly disappeared.

A decade later, Cameron Mackintosh, the British producer who mounted the first version, decided to revisit the material. The show was significantly reshaped. Songs were jettisoned. Others were inserted. Lyrics were changed. Characters were rethought. A new cast was hired and, for there to be some marquee star power, Carol Burnett played the older woman, originated by Julie Andrews. Opposite her was George Hearn, veteran Broadway singer/actor. As the younger couple, Brits John Barrowman and Ruthie Henshall and as the narrator, television's Bronson Pinchot. Eric Schaeffer, a director from Washington DC known for his work with Sondheim material put the whole thing together. The critics were less than rapturous and when poor health forced Carol Burnett to withdraw for some weeks, and be replaced with Kathy Lee Gifford, the show's fate was sealed. The production, however, was taped for television airing and this has now been released on DVD.

The musical revue is a specialized form of entertainment; essentially plotless, it depends entirely on the quality of the material and the abilities of the performers to succeed. Sondheim, as he writes so specifically for character and situation, is very difficult to execute in revue style. Even his most familiar songs are meant to be performed in context for proper emotional impact and yanking them out of context and giving them slight lyric tweaks doesn't add to their strength. Time and again, moments are undercut as the wrong people are singing about the wrong things.

The show is not helped by Schaeffer's frenetic direction. He can't leave his performers alone to make connection with the audience and sing from the heart. They're always running around the set (an ugly amalgamation of forced perspective cubes - sort of Mondrian meets Playskool)or trying to emote some sort of life into these artificial constructs of characters. The old pros know when to ignore Schaeffer's worst ideas and just stand there and sing and so Hearn and Burnett have all of the best moments. Hearn, in particular, blows just about everyone off the stage in his solo turns. Burnett relies on a lot of her trademark shtick. In some ways, she seems to be spoofing a Joan Crawford / Bette Davis grand dame role in one of her film parodies. Still, she gets to tackle numbers like The Ladies Who Lunch.

The junior members of the cast fare less well. John Barrowman is gorgeous to look at but has the persona of a cucumber. Ruthie Henshall seems to spend all her time singing through her nose and looks positively deformed every time she opens her mouth. Bronson Pinchot has some cute bits but is obviously in way over his head.

The DVD is well constructed. It has the show in wide screen and 5.1 sound mix. There is an interview with Carol Burnett and an onstage 'blooper' which happened during the taping which has more life in it than most of the show as staged. Most members of the general public will find this production about as exciting as scrubbing mildew stains out of bathroom grout. It's for real connoisseurs of the Broadway musical form and Burnett and/or Sondheim fans.

Champagne glasses. Rope swinging. Toy furniture. Bob Mackie costumes. Boy toy. Girl toy. Faux sophistication. Red waterfall curtain.

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