Marry Me A Little
St James Theatre
6 August 2015
In his magnificent tome, Finishing The Hat, Stephen Sondheim opines that theatre lyrics should be sung in their proper context; that content dictates form; less is more; and God is in the details.
But when songs are cut from musicals before they premiere, what happens to them? What is their proper context then? After they have been discarded, what does the content matter to the form? How can God be in the detail of abandoned numbers?
Marry Me A Little is a sort of show, sort of revue. It was first created in 1980 by Craig Lucas and René Norman using a series of Sondheim tunes which had been cut from his musicals prior to that time – since 1980, some have been, rightly, reinstated. Now playing at the St James’ Studio is a reimagination of that original show, directed by Hannah Chissick.
This version presents a fractured, non-linear tale about a relationship between two New Yorkers – he is that soft, typical American lad, all pizza, beer, golf and football, unsure of commitment, happy with sex without ties; she is that slightly astringent, intelligent, typical American girl, full of hope and promise, but demanding, but not in an offensive way, about her need to partner and nest.
So the evening shows this couple – meeting, hooking up, happy, disintegrating and then parting – but not necessarily in that order.
That’s one way of looking at it.
On the other hand, Sondheim’s lyrics and music are full of insight, wisdom and understanding about relationships, especially heterosexual relationships, and this theatrical experience focusses your attention on that. It really is remarkable that someone who, at the time he wrote these songs, did not really have the experience of loving, deeply felt relationships, and certainly not with women, could have created these songs. Yet, he writes about the feelings of women with extraordinarily incisive intuition, no doubt the result of intense observation.
There is a kind of divine rapture in watching the two performers jump through the Sondheim hoops and reach the, inevitably, harrowing and desolate conclusion. If nothing else, this revue demonstrates why the second Act of Into The Woods has such a dark and consequence-oriented focus. Life is, actually, like that.
On the other, other hand, you can look at this experience as a chance to guess, as each song is performed, from which of Sondheim’s musicals the songs originally came. It’s a fun game – some songs are clearly from Follies or Company; others are more obscure. I did not, for instance, pick the number cut from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. It’s a good game.
At sixty minutes, the experience is not remotely taxing. Indeed, there is a lot to be said for the notion that more material should be added to the mix; to add songs from post 1980 Sondheim writing – in particular, to elaborate upon the happiness the couple share. But other things could also improve the mix: I Remember from Evening Primrose would, perhaps, be more interesting for the Woman to sing than The Girls of Summer (written, I think for a play). It might be nice to spend more time on the happiness of the couple – songs from Passion or Road Show might be used to advantage.
This is a delightful and engaging musical theatre experience. There is always a special frisson that comes from women singing songs originally written for men, and vice versa, and that is certainly true here: the woman singing Marry Me A Little is the triumphant and cataclysmic turning point of this musical journey.
Chissick presents a modern take on relationship angst through the prism of Sondheim lyrics and music. Whatever Sondheim says, here the new content dictates the use of the old form; things written for one purpose become subsumed in another. And it works – because Sondheim’s lyrics and music have that special ability to function perfectly in their intended home as well as to work effortlessly in different contexts. That is why so many artists sing his songs out of context.
As the Woman, Laura Pitt-Pulford is quite lovely. The top of her voice might not always be as crisp as it could, but she sings with real expression, passion and commitment. The result is a painfully etched journey through love and pain. She is especially marvellous delivering the title song, Boy Can that Boy Foxtrot and There Won’t Be Trumpets. She truly understands the need to perform a song, rather than just sing it.
Simon Bailey is forlorn, blokey and irrepressibly “a guy” as the lost, hopeless and unable-to-commit Man. He sings well, although occasionally straining at the top of his register. But you can’t fault his commitment to the emotional centre of the piece and the music. His rendition of Happily Ever After was a high point of the evening.
This is engaging musical theatre at its most optimistic: marrying talented singers with clever lyrics and tunes to create a wholly new experience.
Bravo to all involved. If you like musical theatre – go!