When Stephen Sondheim died last November, the loss to the world of musical theater was incalculable. Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!; Mame; La Cage aux Folles) may have been the master of rousing, sentimental anthems; Stephen Schwartz (Godspell; Wicked) may be the poet of spiritual struggles; but no one is more inspiring and influential or pushed the boundaries of commercial theater farther than Sondheim. Who else could write a musical about U.S. presidential assassins or the creation of a painting? Every Sondheim project presented a challenge to the audience, from Company to Follies to Sweeney Todd. He was obsessed with the art of telling a story with songs. His music was complex and moving; his lyrics were exquisite. The fusion of the two was a unique experience.
To honor Sondheim’s legacy, the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater is reviving Marry Me a Little, a 1980 revue created by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss; the film Longtime Companion) and Norman René that incorporated 18 songs cut from Sondheim musicals before they opened (except for the title song, which was cut from Company, then reinstated in revivals). Sung by an unnamed man and woman in separate apartments who are attracted to one another, these numbers constitute the complete show: there is no added dialogue or narration.
Six of the songs in Marry Me a Little were cut from Follies, Sondheim’s blistering account of a reunion of Ziegfeld Follies girls and the emotional disasters in their lives since their glory days.
The frustration of relationships that are ultimately unfulfilling is a frequent Sondheim theme, as is the difficulty of sustaining commitment and intimacy. In his hands, romance is almost always a dysfunctional proposition.
Though Marry Me a Little is narrowly focused, the WHAT production, which is directed and designed by the company’s producing artistic director, Christopher Ostrom, is plush. The set, which is raised high, presents parallel apartments joined at the center in a beautiful and dramatic vision of urban modernity. Musical director Kevin Quill accompanies the actors on piano from up on the balcony. The two leads, Brittany Rolfs and Sam Perwin, are attractive and persuasive. They flirt, come together briefly, and separately and in unison, articulate the hopes and doubts of a relationship.
Rolfs has a strong voice and occasionally belts; Perwin has a sweet voice that is tinged with yearning. The couple inhabits their musical numbers as if they were a second skin.
The songs themselves are so intricate and intriguing, it’s hard to reckon why they were cut. Take “Marry Me a Little,” for example; it expresses a couple’s interest in limiting the closeness in their relationship — perfect for the musical Company, about a 35-year-old perennial bachelor: “We’ll look not too deep/ We’ll go not too far/ We won’t have to give up a thing/ We’ll stay who we are.”
And there’s humor, too. “Can That Boy Foxtrot,” cut from Follies, describes the primacy of sex, with a basic dance move substituting for the f-word: “His mouth is mean/ He’s not too clean/ What makes him look reptilian is the brilliantine/ But oh, can that boy foxtrot … As dumbbells go/ He’s rather slow/ And as for being saintly, even faintly, no/ But who needs Albert Schweitzer when the lights are low?”
Short of a revival of one of Sondheim’s masterworks, Marry Me a Little is a great summer diversion. It offers the neophyte a taste of his talent, and those who are already familiar can enjoy a compelling staging of repurposed songs — songs that otherwise could not be seen in context. Even the restless, ever-dissatisfied Sondheim would be impressed with this fine production.
A Little Uptight Music
The event: Marry Me a Little, a musical of Stephen Sondheim songs
The time: Through July 22, Tuesday through Saturday (and Monday, July 18) at 8 p.m.
The place: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, 2357 Route 6
The cost: $25-$40; seniors $22.50-$36; students $15; plus $2.50 fee at what.org or 508-349-9428