My son is currently performing in a youth theater production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's musical, "Merrily We Roll Along." Parental pride aside, it's a first-rate show, with strong leads, a lively ensemble and a truly excellent orchestra. See it, if you live in the East Bay and have a spare couple of hours. Tickets are available through Brown Bag Tickets.
The real point of this post, however, is to spotlight one of my favorite books about Sondheim in particular and musical theater in general. The second edition of Craig Zadan's "Sondheim & Co.," published in 1986, follows the career of the legendary composer/lyricist from "By George," the school musical he wrote with two classmates, through the first steps toward "Into the Woods." It's smart and thorough and dishy, written by an insightful show-biz insider. Zadan began his career as an investigative reporter but served as Director of Theater Projects for Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and co-produced "Sondheim: A Musical Tribute" on Broadway. He also co-produced the original film version of "Footloose." He knows what he's talking about.
"Sondheim & Co." has plenty of anecdotes about "Company," "West Side Story," "Follies" and so on, but it's unusual in that, in addition to the usual chronological account of successes and failures, it also contains chapters on the aspects of professional musical theater that are sometimes overlooked. Zadan details how casting, musical direction, orchestration and poster art each add to or detract from a production as a whole. It's easy to think that a show is only about its songs and libretto, but Zadan expertly punctures that myth.
The book's chapter about "Merrily We Roll Along" is a good case in point. It's a sobering account of how even seasoned professionals like Sondheim, Furth and director Harold Prince can persist in making one mistake after another and ruin what looks like a sure thing. "Merrily" ran only 16 performances in its original Broadway production. Audiences and critics hated the costumes, the scenery, the dancing, the eager-yet-unseasoned cast, the modular score and the way the plot moves in reverse. Zadan methodically recounts how every wrong turn was made.
"Merrily" has been significantly revised since 1981. Even if there probably aren't many people out there who rank it as their favorite Sondheim musical, the score is lovely and clever and the story can be quite affecting in the right hands. (See above.)
Either edition of "Sondheim & Co." is hard to find these days, but copies are well worth hunting down. I wish Zadan would take time out from his big-shot Hollywood producer duties and produce a third edition bringing Sondheim enthusiasts up to date with "Bounce."
One caveat about the second edition: my hardcover copy seems to have been bound with sparrow spit or something. It lasted only one gentle reading before splitting into 200 individual sheets. I plan to keep it no matter what, but it's insanely difficult to browse through.