The day officially started at 11am with Wall to Wall Stephen Sondheim at Symphony Space. Freddie Gershon, head of Music Theatre International (which licenses most of Sondheim's shows), was there to introduce a slice of Into the Woods, Jr. done by a slew of young performers. "But no kid is like Baby June Louise," he said, confusing two characters as one. (Well, Gypsy is licensed by a rival company.) Gershon warned us to "get out our handkerchiefs" and, indeed, the sight of dozens of kids gathered on stage and plenty of others pouring down the aisles to sing "Children Will Listen" made my face moist.
Saturday morn was a good time to attend, for this section of the 12-hour marathon concentrated on Sondheim's early work. Yes, he was learning: "I Must Be Dreaming" (from All That Glitters, based on Beggar on Horseback) does have a false accent on the word "satis-FIED," and "How Do I Know?" from Phinney's Rainbow, a college show, has a melisma that turns "the" into "the-uh." (Interesting, isn't it, that all of us can name the president of Williams College in the '40s thanks to Sondheim's having written this show.)
Then Christina Sunnerstam took the stage. Don't know her? I understand, for in a real change of pace, she played Sondheim's college-era "A Very Short Violin Sonata." As she fiddled, I sat there shaking at the thought of what our lives would have been like had Sondheim gone into classical music. And while I know less about that kind of music than Sandor does in Bells Are Ringing, I felt that this sonata was not nearly short enough.
We returned to musicals with "I'm in a Love With a Boy," from Climb High. You're inferring from the title that the the song is about a romantic relationship, but actually, it has a mother singing about her child. Emily Skinner was especially good when delivering the deft lyric that this "bundle of joy" makes her "a bundle of nerves."
The show was broadcast on the radio, and listeners may have wondered why the audience laughed even before Freda Foh Shen began "The Girls of Summer." (She was holding a wine glass as if she were Joanne in Company.) We all winced when emcee Isiah Sheffer said, "Stephen Sondheim's first contribution to Broadway was Gypsy." (Why, in fact, was West Side Story ignored during the marathon?) Later, Becky Ann Baker hilariously did "Truly Content" from Passionella -- directed in 1962 by the then-inexperienced Mike Nichols. Only four years later, Nichols would become one of Broadway's most heralded directors when he staged The Apple Tree, which contained another version of Passionella.
Bernadette Peters was in California doing a pilot but got up early to phone guest emcee Jonathan Schwartz. When he asked her if Sondheim's music was difficult, she gave a smart response: that it isn't as hard as it seems, because it's so grounded in character. Then came "Sorry/Grateful," in which John Dossett went up on the lyrics -- probably because he can't relate to having mixed feelings about being married to Michele Pawk.
When "Getting Married Today" was announced, Alice Ripley put her hands over her face in horror, knowing that she had quite the mountain to climb with Amy's lickety-split lyrics. As it turned out, she gave the song one of the best renditions I've ever heard. When Gregg Edelman sang "Marry Me a Little," I felt those tingles I always feel when I realize how lucky I am to live in New York. Then Liz Callaway did "What More Do I Need?" from Saturday Night, which she introduced 22 years ago -- and she sounded not a whit worse for wear. Callaway was also marvelous in the duet "With So Little to Be Sure Of," but we expected that; the real surprise was that accompanist Alex Rybeck, best known for his piano playing abilities, sang his part of it more beautifully than any man I've ever heard.
I first saw Virginia Woolf during its first national tour at the Colonial in Boston in September, 1963, when I was 17. Because I'd been hearing about this excoriating drama for nearly a year, I was hot to see it, so I got a second-night ticket. My mother, who phoned all of her eight siblings each day, told every one that I was going to see the play; she said the title with a little lilt in her voice, as if she were saying "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" Well, Boston being what it was back then, the next day's papers reported that the city fathers had deemed the play utterly filthy and profane, and had declared that it should be closed immediately. This led to eight phone calls to our house, during which my mother's siblings roared, "Aren't you paying attention to what he sees? Do you let him go to just anything?" My mother swore that she'd never let me see another play.
Cut to 2005, when the new production of Virginia Woolf played a pre-Broadway tryout in Boston. While I didn't think that anyone would lobby to close it, I was amused to hear from Lucas MacMahon, a 15-year-old who often corresponds with me, that he went to see the show with his high school class. Ah, the times they have a-changed! Today's kids hear so much profanity that Edward Albee's once-shocking language doesn't raise a hackle. Back in 1962, though, when Goddard Lieberson recorded the play and issued the performance on four LPs, he censored Martha's "You prick" and changed it to the apparently more genteel "You bastard."
Virginia Woolf had played a previous Boston tryout when the 1976 revival with Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara debuted at the Colonial. The play then seemed small in comparison, partly because the set was very modest -- only a suggestion of George and Martha's living room. Thank the Lord for John Lee Beatty's impressive set this time around, though I do miss one thing from the '76 edition: There was a mantle clock whose hands initially registered two o'clock, and though that meant two in the morning, I was seeing a Saturday matinee, so I was watching the play unfold in what seemed like real time.
So, does the play hold up today? How fascinating that yesterday's searing drama is today's black comedy. The crowd at the Longacre just wouldn't stop laughing, whereas 40-plus years ago, people watched the proceedings in horror. But this Virginia Woolf did shock me in a way that the play hadn't before. There was Nick, sitting down on the couch, getting comfortable -- and then lighting a cigarette without asking, "Do you mind if I smoke?" Well, the play is set in the early '60s, when people routinely lit up and no one thought twice about it. George and Martha may be terrible hosts but they do have a big ashtray on their coffee table.
Time has taken its toll on the play in other ways. When Martha asks George to name the movie she's thinking of, he says, "Chicago -- It's called Chicago!" -- a title that means something quite different to current audiences. George utters some dire predictions about biologists' "making babies in test tubes," and there probably was someone somewhere in a lab on Saturday afternoon trying to clone someone. Even the line "You can't get annulled if there's entrance" has dated, for there have been many annulments even after sexual intercourse.
Kathleen Turner's as good as you might have hoped as Martha, but Bill Irwin as George is the real surprise, for here's a guy doing awfully well with words even though he was trained as a mime. Mireille Enos (whose name is close to the title of a Polish play that was produced on Broadway in 1967) seems to have seen Sandy Dennis as Honey in the acclaimed 1966 film, but David Harbour makes the part of Nick his own. As I left the theater, I found myself humming a song from I Do! I Do!: "You can throw away your every care and doubt, 'cuz that's what married life is all about." Ah, but George and Martha -- and even Nick and Honey -- would beg to differ.
Then it was off to Luna Stage Company in Montclair, New Jersey, to see a new play titled A Beautiful Home for the Incurable. And what did I think of that? Here's the link to my review for the Star-Ledger. (Many thanks to Broadwaystars.com, which is so gracious in also providing links to my Star-Ledger reviews.)
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]