In 1979, during rehearsals for the Broadway debut of the musical “Sweeney Todd”, a member of the chorus of that show happened to discover from Stephen Sondheim that the famed lyricist/composer had a trunkful of songs dropped from other shows as well as unperformed numbers. That chorus boy was Craig Lucas, the eventual author of such theatrical works as “Prelude to a Kiss“” and “Dying Gaul” (as well as the books for the musicals “Light in the Piazza” and the upcoming “King Kong”), who, recalling that conversation a year later when he and director Norman Rene were asked to create a revue for the off-off-Broadway Production Company, asked and was granted Sondheim’s permission to raid that trunk. Thus it was that in 1980 there resulted the performance of “Marry Me a Little”, consisting of a compilation of seventeen songs from eight of Sondheim’s works (some previously produced, some not) with no book, but a bare thread of plot about two single New Yorkers in apartments, a Man living in the apartment above a Woman, both lonely on a Saturday night. The production was successful enough to transfer to off-Broadway at the Actor’s Playhouse in 1981, revived and reworked at the off-Broadway Keen Company last season.
The current version, presented by New Rep, holds a few surprises for anyone familiar with the original. First, don’t assume the missionary position; Man no longer lives on top of Woman. Instead, there are four characters living in close proximity, and therein lie all sorts of permutations and combinations. It is the first gender-blind production to achieve Sondheim’s imprimatur, and just consider the possibilities. By changing the size and potential interactions of the cast, this has become a totally different work, and something is lost as well as gained. Formerly, there was a narrative of sorts, and a tenuous “plot” in the progression of those previously “lost” numbers. What has been gained is all those possibilities.
The previous work began, appropriately enough, with Man and Woman bemoaning their dateless situations: “when you’re alone on a Saturday night, you might as well be dead”. This was followed by “Two Fairy Tales”, wherein a princess finds happiness, choosing multiple suitors: “and there’s probably a moral to be pointedly discussed, but it’s always been my favorite and I read it when I’m gloomy”. Next came a snipet where “everything forever all comes true”, though “the war (between the sexes) commences, the enemy awaits”. This segued into a song wherein Woman compares herself to those who risk and “have all the fun, I have nothin’ but blues…the same undamaged heart that I had at the start”, echoed by the following number about her schizoid desire to be an uptown “swell” and a downtown gal “holding hands on the El”. Then both exulted in possibly finding love that many in the world “don’t know…they’ve missed”. They lamented the reality that though it was noticed that “Your Eyes Are Blue” they “never had…spoken”. They dream of actually meeting and “in no time, by spending A Moment with You”, falling in love immediately, leading to her plea to “Marry Me a Little” and his rejoinder, “Happily Ever After (for now)” and her questioning “don’t they know, don’t they, what they want?” and exclaiming that one won’t need trumpets or the like, it “doesn’t matter just as long as he comes along”. Finally, he admits to himself that“It Wasn’t Meant to Happen…the timing was wrong, a little regret and that’s that”. Despite this, he avers “Who could be blue…knowing there’s you, somewhere nearby”. And she ends with the wistful dream of a “Little White House…with a little white fence” and “his favorite type of a girl”. And that’s that, ending pretty much where it began.
This time around, just when you thought it was safe to come out of the trunk, the order of numbers has been changed, and the songs assigned to various solos and “duets” (though none of them have actually met), resulting in no dramatic arc at all. What remains is rather like a collection of unrelated short stories, which on a stage defy classification. It’s clearly not a book musical (nor was it in its prior form), not a musical revue, and not really a song cycle. It will no doubt appeal to those who aren’t familiar with these lesser known Sondheim songs, as well as to Sondheim “freaks” (and we know who we are) eager to encounter these rarities. It will also appeal to folks with its gender-blindness (you know, boy meets boy, boy loses boy…), which is pleasant and unforced.
Much of its appeal lies in the direction and choreography by Ilyse Robbins, which are terrifically creative. The cast is pretty terrific, too, starting with Aimee Doherty as Woman 2, but including all of her co-stars, Erica Spyres as Woman 1, Phil Tayler as Man 1, and Brad Daniel Peloquin (despite periodically insufficient miking) as Man 2. Each sings, dances and acts fluidly. The technical credits are up to New Rep’s typical bar, from the complex and clever multi-unit apartment Set Design by Erik Diaz, to Costume Design by Rafael Jaen, Lighting Design by Christopher Ostrom and Sound Design by David Reiffel. Special mention should be made about Musical Director David McGrory’s contribution; here and there one even hears snipets of “Lovely” from “A Funny Thing” (accompanied by Woman 1 on her violin) and the chorus waltz from “A Little Night Music”. The other sources include “Follies” (with an added number “Can That Boy Foxtrot”), “Into the Woods” (with an unfamiliar song, “Rainbows”, written for a proposed film version), “Company”, “Anyone Can Whistle”, “Saturday Night”, “Girls of Summer”, and “The Last Resorts”.
By now, most of the songs have become more familiar via recordings of “unsung Sondheim”, but it’s a pleasure to hear them even in some unintended contexts. The sum may be less than the total of its parts, and this surely isn’t great drama in the traditional sense, but anyone who appreciates great composers and lyricists will enjoy this show. After all, with a trunk like Sondheim’s, there are bound to be treasures for just about anyone.