I was highlighting divisions in the critical ranks only yesterday, but few musical theatre writers inspire greater divisions than Stephen Sondheim. I recently pointed out that the Sunday Telegraph theatre critic Tim Walker admonished him as a “terrible lyricist”, which frankly beggars belief. Whatever else you may say about Sondheim’s work - there are those who accuse it of being emotionally distant, too clever by half, too rarefied - you can’t say he’s a bad lyricist.
But if there’s a show that’s going to divide Sondheim’s fans and foes more than any other, it is surely Passion, his demanding, disquieting 1994 Broadway chamber musical about a dangerous, obsessive love that literally becomes a matter of life and death.
There’s little humour; not a single break for applause across its unbroken 100 minute playing time; no let up from the anguish and distress. But there’s also a haunting beauty threaded through the despair: “They hear drums, you hear music, as do I”, says Fosca to the man she is determined to make her own, drawing attention to their shared status as outsiders.
But that’s also a neat way of encapsulating the contrary responses to Sondheim’s music, too: some hear drums, others hear music. And predictably enough, yesterday’s early critical responses ranged the full gamut from two to five stars. I’m in the latter camp - as I wrote in my Stage review published online yesterday, it was, for me, “an evening of constantly uneasy but intricately sustained musical theatre ecstasy.” In Fosca’s great aria of romantic abandonment, she hauntingly sings,
“Loving you is not a choice,
It’s who I am.
Loving you is not a choice
And not much reason to rejoice,
But it gives me purpose
Gives me voice to say to the world:
This is why I live
You are why I live.
Sondheim has given those of us who love his work plenty of reasons to rejoice over the years; though it’s sometimes been a lonely pleasure. But as with so many once reviled things, some critics seem to be catching up at last: even Charles Spencer admitted yesterday, confusingly parodying the circumstances of Oscar Wilde’s downfall, “I have rarely posed as a Sondheimite, and the reverence with which he is regarded by his hard-core fans has often struck me as faintly embarrassing. I can see that he is clever and imaginative, with a fine wit and a gift for haunting, unexpected melodies, but many of his shows seem too pleased with their own ingenuity to be truly satisfying. He largely lacks the gift of heartfelt simplicity and directness and too often comes over as a bit of a smart-ass.”
But Passion is an exception, he says, but even here he reveals that wasn’t his original impression: “When I saw the show’s first outing in New York in 1994, it struck me as career suicide on the part of Sondheim. Based on an Italian film, Passion seemed so creepy, so dark, so extreme in its emotional palette that it was sometimes downright risible.”
But this time around, he says, “I watched Jamie Lloyd’s superb new production in a state of rapt concentration, and at the end felt I had witnessed a masterpiece. There is something so uncompromising about Passion, a determination to plunge right into what Yeats described as ‘the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’, that now seems to me to be both heroic and deeply moving. It is not a show that is ever going to be to everyone’s taste, and Sondheim clearly doesn’t give a damn. All he wants to do is show that unconditional love is irresistible and may demand everything from those who experience it.”
There is, of course, an unconditional surrender for those who love some musicals; and I expect to see some more critical revisionism taking place tonight when Les Miserables returns to its original London home of the Barbican Theatre, where it was far from acclaimed when it first premiered in 1985 (though, as Michael Coveney pointed out yesterday, it wasn’t entirely slated, either, receiving “at least four rave reviews — from Benedict Nightingale, myself, Clive Hirschhorn and Sheridan Morley — as well as a fair selection of good-to-mixed, and a couple of stinkers, which is about par for the course for any new musical.”)
It was instructive to follow the dark, uncompromising beauty of Passion by a matinee jaunt to Liverpool yesterday for Willy Russell’s new musical adaptation of his TV film Our Day Out, now receiving a second trip out at Liverpool’s Royal Court. Russell writes at the other end of the spectrum from Sondheim, creating genuinely populist crowd-pleasers but that also have a tug of heart and a powerful message buried within them about the value of education, in this case amongst a “progress class” of kids with various learning deficits.
The show, spiritedly performed by a cast of eight adult actors and a large troupe of younger ones, has few deficits itself. Bob Eaton’s production may have a rough-and-ready feeling at times, and the sound system could do with improving so you could actually hear the witty lyrics better, but its apparent artlessness means it is full of heart.
Russell, currently riding high in the West End by the Menier originated double bill of revivals of his plays Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita at Trafalgar Studios, is hoping for a further life for this piece. It’s wonderful seeing it on its home territory, especially in the reclaimed glory of Liverpool’s beautiful Royal Court Theatre, which re-opened as a comedy and music venue three years ago but is now venturing into regular theatrical production. (Next up is Lennon, a revival of Bob Eaton’s tribute musical to another local hero, that once played the Astoria in London in the 80s, that will run from October 15 to November 13).
But its revealing when Russell states in the programme, “I’d love this production to have a longer life and for the work to be seen by as many people as possible. Realistically, though, for a show of this scale to reach the widest audience it would first have to have some kind of London outing….And if Our Day Out - the Musical is going to be seen in London then we need the right building, the right producer(s) and, as with any venture in the theatre, a massive lashing of goodwill and a big bucket of good luck.”
Russell knows that first hand - when the original production of Blood Brothers transferred from Liverpool to the West End’s Lyric Theatre in 1983, it ran just six months. But its second West End outing, just five years later, has now been going strong for 22 years. If at first you don’t succeed, try again, they always say; and that’s been proved with Blood Brothers. It’s also the story of Les Miserables, too, which had an earlier French outing before the RSC collaborated with Cameron Mackintosh on the English language version that then went global.