Marry Me A Little is 75 minutes or so of songs written by Stephen Sondheim. These are songs that were cut from other shows and then assembled into a play by a bunch of other people. It’s new at the Tarragon Theatre. In some respects it resembles a musical like Mamma Mia, like a quilt the way it’s stitched from a series of independent & unrelated found materials.
But there are at least two crucial differences.
1. These songs are unknown, so they don’t undermine the story being told in the quilting exercise (whereas we all remember those ABBA tunes)
2. I love ABBA, but these are songs by Stephen Sondheim (!), which means they are designed for music theatre, and are fabulous material for good performers.
Can you tell that I loved it? I am bowled over first of all by the achievement of stitching this quilt together into something that to my eyes and ears is coherent. But maybe I should address how that was done, hopefully without giving too much away.
Marry Me A Little reminded me of The Method, whose idea of good acting would have performers give the impression that –instead of reciting lines—they speak the lines as they come into their heads, as though we were seeing spontaneous thoughts and impressions. Musical theatre is often very daunting because of its artificiality, a contrived art that can seem totally fake and unbelievable. Marry Me a Little completely sidesteps that concern.
OR let’s phrase this in reverse, attempting to capture the process of the show’s creators, CraigLucas & Norman René. How, they might have asked, do we make these songs seem to arise from genuine feelings in an authentic situation that’s not contrived or fake? Their solution was and is very simple. Marry Me A Little is self-reflexive. There are two characters, namely “He” and “She”. For this incarnation at least (NB I read there was at least one different way of doing this show, so maybe I should be attributing this idea to director Adam Brazier, not Lucas & René), He is a composer, finding his way through the materials not just as a performer but apparently as their creator. He sings his way as though discovering the answer to his creative problems, first in solitude, then conjuring “She” up in his mind.
This discrepancy at once makes him more authentic within the text (as he seems to grapple both with his romantic self and his creative self, the one never far from the other) and in a real sense, shallower (in his solipsistic focus). She is so much more vulnerable, the one who sings the title song that expresses romantic agnosticism (marrying a little being a cautious alternative to full-on marriage), and yet the bold & vulnerable one in their romantic dialogue who bravely puts her ass on the line. As such her part is in my opinion much harder because she is so exposed, seeming at times like his very thoughts, flitting in and out, as elusive and changeable as an inkblot in a Rorschach test. Elodie Gillett makes a very likeable ghost, and a three-dimensional phantom.
Don’t get me wrong. “He” is a killer part, required to play keyboards, sing as though discovering an idea inside his head and then bringing it to life. That electric sense of discovery, of something being born right in front of our eyes, is what I was referring to when I spoke of method acting. Tonight I know I wasn’t the only one electrified, as I often noticed that special silence you get when the whole audience is leaning forward, rapt.
This –particularly in the hands of Adrian Marchuk—is why I spoke of The Method. Did the creators of this musical have the clever idea to suck us in by watching a composer trying to write a musical, thereby persuading us to excuse the appropriation of all these chunks of Sondheim that were found as if on the cutting room floor: excised from other musicals? All I know is, it works. He works. Marchuk works.
And yet I know nothing about He or She. These two are a virtual template, a blank space filled only with Sondheim and performance. Why do we need to know anything? Their plight is universal. We glimpse Paul Sportelli’s hands on a piano upstage of the action –as though in the next apartment—playing sometimes, while for some of these songs it’s Marchuk who plays, sometimes inspired, sometimes pounding the keys in frustration. It’s all so understated that the component parts are almost invisible: the music direction, Sportelli following the singers like their shadow, Linda Garneau’s choreography that seems merely like clever people being natural, not contrived movement, and Adam Brazier’s direction, ensuring that it all flows & coheres. There’s almost nothing there: except the whole world.
Marry Me A Little runs until April 6th, the best musical i’ve seen in a long time.