IN DEFENSE OF PUTTING IT TOGETHER
by June Abernathy
The most recent attempt at a "Best of Sondheim" retrospective show was 1992's "Putting it Together". The first such attempt was "Side By Side By Sondheim" back in 1975. While "Side by Side" was a success, and, due to it's popularity in Regional theatre, can even be credited with spreading Sondheim's name and work beyond purely NYC circles, it only contains music up to and including Pacific Overtures, and as he developed a large body of work beyond that, requests to either update the show or write some kind of "Side by Side II" persisted. While Sondheim never showed a great deal of interest in such a project, he was eventually pushed by Cameron Mackintosh and pulled by Julia McKenzie into collaborating on "Putting it Together".
Sondheim has always written songs specific to the characters, the situation, and the show. Songs that were written to be staged, often with a specific actor in mind. Thus, it is difficult to pull them out of context, and while "Side by Side" resorted to a narrator to fill in the blanks, obviously, it would be better if the numbers could work on their own. Out of a desire to do that, the idea of creating a thin plotline and characters around which the show could be built was born. The audience knew and would know that the plot and characters only existed to give framework and context to the songs. If we are all, audience and cast alike, in winking collusion over this device, then the numerous hard to swallow plot and character developments become more bearable. More of a good revue rather than a bad Dinner Party Musical.
I think the challenge of putting old songs into a framework, using as few "Side by Side" numbers as possible, while still retaining entertainment value and a cohesive evening had to prove irresistible to a puzzle mind like Sondheim's. Very much like a parlor game. If you are familiar with all the songs in their original contexts, then you are in on the game - "How are they possibly going to work in a number from Assassins? - we've got you cornered now Steve - but no! Game sequence!". Occasionally, a new take on an old number may offer fresh insight. At the same time, audience members new to Sondheim get to experience the songs from within a context, as they were meant to be seen. And even if that context isn't the one it was originally conceived for, it is at least not presented as a generic show tune.
Putting a star in the show, as they did in England with Diana Rigg and in the States with Julie Andrews, would seem an odd choice for what is essentially an ensemble show, but in both cases, the ensemble work was not disrupted, and tickets were sold. The American cast was almost uniformly exceptional, and it says much for the power of Cameron Mackintosh and the allure of Stephen Sondheim that not only Julie Andrews, but Rachel York, Michael Rupert, Stephen Collins and Christopher Durang were willing to brave one of the coldest winters in recent history working in an off-Broadway house for scale. The cast recording is well worth owning just to hear some stellar performances.
While neither a revue or a book musical, "Putting it Together" achieved it's aim admirably, I think, and I can only surmise that with Sondheim's name, a cast of five and a single set, it will get produced regionally far more often than any of the shows whose songs it contains. This means that a great deal of America will get it's view of Sondheim's work from this collection, and I, for one, don't think that is a bad thing.
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