Karen Mason is back in New York from Miami after the premature closing of Side by Side by Sondheim at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Music Theatre International--the licensing agency for the show--pulled the rights from the theater when it was discovered that the production, directed and choreographed by Jack Allison, had added songs and other material not included in the revue as scripted.
"We were all taken by surprise," says Mason, who starred in the show along with Kevin Gray, Cris Groenendaal, and Florence Lacey. "We assumed that the theater had cleared the changes. I think they were also surprised and embarrassed. It's not necessarily an experience I would like to ever have again." Though the show had been scheduled to run through April 22, it closed instead on March 30.
Side by Side by Sondheim was originally produced in London and then in New York in the mid 1970s, and the licensed version of the show therefore does not include songs from Stephen Sondheim shows of more recent vintage. Why were the changes and additions made at Coconut Grove? "I guess they felt they were enhancing the production by doing the more contemporary stuff," Mason told TheaterMania. "What's really sad is that our rehearsal process was grueling. We learned a lot in two and half weeks. Basically, it was like a workshop; they were creating this new version of the show as we went along. I think we did about 14 performances. We were just starting to get into the groove of it, and it was over. The Miami Herald and one or two other papers reviewed us. Hal Prince was there on opening night with Joy Abbott [widow of George Abbott]." According to Mason, additions to the show included "a lot of Into the Woods, some Sweeney Todd, a few lines from Assassins," and other material from Sondheim musicals of the last two decades.
Though it's unclear whether Sondheim had a direct hand in the early shuttering of this production, he is known to oppose unauthorized cuts, additions, and changes to his musicals. Last year, when he was personally informed that "Someone is Waiting" had been cut from Julianne Boyd's production of Company at the Barrington Stage Company, Sondheim had a letter sent to the theater insisting that the song be immediately reinstated if performances were to continue. (It was reinstated--immediately.)
Karen Mason is philosophical about the Coconut Grove brouhaha. "It was a terrific opportunity to sing some of those songs," she says. "That's why all of us did the show. I got to sing 'Getting Married Today,' 'There Won't Be Trumpets,' 'Losing My Mind,' and 'I'm Still Here.' It was a great cast, and the people at the theater were wonderful. They had a good concept for the show--unfortunately, it wasn't the concept of Side by Side by Sondheim as written. I think it was short sighted of them to make the changes without permission. To be honest, it was probably inevitable that the show would be shut down."