An Opinionated and Irreverent Revue of the Differences Between the Original 1970 and Revised 1996 Scripts of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Musical Comedy.
Phillip: Of course, Tom will be needed as technical advisor, and just before shooting for a few...
On January 23rd, 1993, the original cast was brought together in Long Beach, California, for a one-time-only reunion concert (subsequently repeated in New York). Stephen Sondheim's score remained brilliant (as did the cast), the songs stitched together by narration provided by George Hearn. I still have the program, and the T-shirt. Because of the success of this concert, the Long Beach Civic Light Opera decided to mount a new production as part of it's '94 season, starring Patrick Cassidy and Carol Burnett. The score remained incandescent. George Furth's book, however, did not. Time had not been gracious to this series of scenes; too many of them were too deeply rooted in 1970 to remain funny or touching in the fast-track world of the '90's.
Don't get me wrong. This is a musical I have loved since the summer of '71, when I first heard a medley of the score as played by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, an admittedly back-door way of entering the musical theatre. I hunted down the OCR, which has been replaced several times since because of my habit of loaning it to people who couldn't let it go. I hunted down the script, which I have never loaned out, having learned the hard way what would happen. I watched all ten performances staged by the California State University at Fresno in the spring of '76, with classmate Robert Westenberg playing the lead. (A hint to all college theatre students: never turn down the chance to work on the house crew for any show, because you never know what might happen, and it's sure a lot cheaper than paying for that many tickets.)
Let's cut to the chase, shall we? In June of 1996, George Furth, Stephen Sondheim, and Hal Prince released a Revised Version of the script. In the short preface, they write, "This script is an amalgamation of the Roundabout and Donmar Warehouse productions of Company," (which both were staged after the LBCLO production). Determined to find just what had been changed, I sat down with my tattered old copy and the new paperback, took out a highlighter, and ran though both versions line by line, marking wherever they were different. (Don't panic, I only marked up the new edition.) What follows is a comparison of the two.
A note on sources: I have used the original text, as found in Ten Great Musicals of the American Theatre, edited by Stanley Richards and published by the Chilton Book Company, 1973, and the revised text, published by the Theatre Communications Group, 1996. For cross-reference sources, I have used the Original Cast Recording, released by Columbia in 1970, the 1995 Broadway Cast Recording, released by Angel in 1996, and a laser disc copy of A Film by D. A. Pennebaker: Original Cast Album: Company.
I am not going to bore everyone with every minor word change. The changes that interest me are the ones generated by the differences in time, from the early '70s to the mid-'90s. For example:
The first bit of stage directions in the new version read "Robert's empty apartment. Robert enters, crosses to the answering machine, and hits the "play" button." This results in a series of five answering machine messages from (in order) Joanne, Peter, April, Amy, and Marta, that clue us in on the following facts: it's Robert's birthday, he's getting stuck with a surprise birthday party, and he's sexually active. (This last is made clear because Marta isn't pregnant and Peter is envious. "Get those girls out of your bed and pick up the phone, will ya? Oh, God, I am so envious I can't even talk." See, he said envious.)
All and all, this is a great new introduction to the show, feeding us bits and pieces without making us feel like we're being fed bit and pieces. It couldn't have happened in 1970, however, because cassette tapes, which are a vital component of answering machines, hadn't yet caught on with the general public.
In 1970, the format everyone was supposed to buy was Eight Track. These were bulky cassettes that held the same size tape as was being used in reel-to-reel recording. The tape was in a continuous loop, which saved on rewinding, and the loop had enough room for eight tracks of music, so you could fit four programs of stereo music on a single cassette. The format was great for rock, pop, or country music, but didn't do too well when it came to classical music of Broadway shows, because those four programs of music all had to be the same length, which meant rearranging the order of the songs, or cutting into the middle of an extended work. Besides, as I said, the cassettes were bulky, running about an inch thick, four inches wide, and six inches long. They weren't the sort of thing anyone could easily stick in a pocket or purse. And blank cassettes weren't available, ruling out home recording.
Not too much later, however, someone figured out how to increase the recording power of cassettes, making it possible for the non-professional to make tapes for himself, which couldn't be done with Eight Track, making that format obsolete. Pretty soon people figured out how to use these new cassette tapes for other purposes, one of the earliest being the "Answering Machine". How did we ever live without them? Well, later in the show, Marta sings "Or my service will explain." For further details I suggest checking into another musical, Bells are Ringing.
I somehow can't help envisioning the day when answering machines are replaced with sub-dermal chips instantly transmitting our telephone messages to us anywhere we may be. Imagine walking down the street while unseen voices call out to us: "Bobby, Bobby-Baby, Bobby-Bubi..." It could drive a person crazy.
Furth has cut the detailed stage directions radically. He trusts directors more now in their creativity, which is a good thing; the exact same Company in every production would be a terrible bore. So, when Furth adds stage directions, it's time to take note. For example: while the dialogue in the first birthday party scene is the same (save a few cuts I'll get into later), the stage directions have been added to, with the married couples entering the apartment is a surreal manner and extending the "intoning" much further into the scene. It isn't until after Harry and Sarah give Robert their present that Furth finally instructs "Gradually, they all start becoming more human, looking and reacting to Robert and each other." Personally, I like this change, as the increased surreality breaks us away from our normal expectations and sets us up to appreciate the free form, time-out-of-joint format to follow.
Assassins is about how society interprets the American Dream, marginalizes outsiders and rewrites and sanitizes its collective history. "Something Just Broke" is a major distraction and plays like an afterthought, shoe horned simply to appease. The song breaks the dramatic fluidity and obstructs the overall pacing and climactic arc which derails the very intent and momentum that makes this work so compelling...
- Mark Bakalor
Which is not to say that it is perfect...
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