Nearly 50 years ago, the compilation Side by Side by Sondheim premiered to strong reviews and audience response, so persistent that by the late 1980s, Sondheim was urged to do an update or a sequel. Relenting to the request, he collaborated with Julia McKenzie, who was one of the creators and stars of the earlier compilation, to set work on Putting It Together, which would differ in format and framing from the earlier compilation. They came up with a dinner party as the story vehicle. The show received its premiere in England in 1992, on Broadway in 1999 and the West End in 2014.
The current Pioneer Theatre Company production of Putting It Together assembles a quintet of characters — wife, husband, a young associate and his date, and observer — for an urbane, splendidly wry, crisp tribute to the late composer, who died in 2021 at the age of ninety-one. Directed and choreographed by Gerry McIntyre with an eight-piece pit orchestra directed by Phil Reno, the production is like the ideal martini — refreshing, versatile and a timeless classic.
The compilation comes together perfectly like a puzzle, which shows just how well the zeitgeist of Sondheim’s songs featured in the compilation transfer from one era to another, with reinvigorating contemporary relevance. The production presents musical highlights from Assassins, Dick Tracy, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Merrily We Roll Along, A Little Night Music, Follies, and Sweeney Todd, as well some of Sondheim’s more obscure material including The Frogs.
The show opens out of frame, with The Observer (Tyrick Wiltez Jones), as he performs the marvelous Invocation and Instructions to the Audience, which Sondheim originally wrote for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, but later inserted into the The Frogs. Jones and the four other members of the ensemble — The Wife (Judy McLane): The Husband (Nicholas Rodriguez), a Young Associate (Brent Thiessen) and His Date (Cayleigh Capaldi) — extract the magic of Sondheim’s astounding capacity to set the vocal line where the lyrics and the instrumentals make clear why the specific character is singing those lines instead of speaking them.
Notably, in Act II, there are two shows that are integral to making this compilation one of the most compelling tributes to Sondheim’s genius in bringing the musical theatrical form to its mature prime. Company, which premiered in 1970, set precedent for story line treatment, introducing the concept musical as a worthwhile format for Broadway productions. While Merrily We Roll Along faltered at the box office and among critics, it contains some of Sondheim’s most important contributions to the dramatic potential of musical theater. It was a show where the story unfolded in reverse chronology and the music followed suit. While he stayed close to the 32-star song structure, the music teems with tightly scored modulations, lyrics are drenched in emotional poignancy and the melodic lines, while not easily hummable, stick with the listener because the haunting tone and texture magnify the characters’ emotional connections.
The counterpoint of idealism represented in these two shows makes the compilation a surprising way to connect all of the pieces comprising this Sondheim puzzle. Take, for example, the gems from Company. Getting Married Today shines as a tour de force patter song — one verse covers 68 words in a bit more than 10 seconds. Discarding the rhyming device, Sondheim uses free speech to illustrate the disordered panic-stricken thought process and hysteria. Thus, the song’s social commentary about gender is just as fresh now as it was in the 1970s. The performance earns its uproarious laughs but, true to form, Sondheim never just played it for comedic effect alone.
Company exudes with the social atmosphere at the time of its premiere and, not unexpectedly, history has repeated itself, which undoubtedly will give the composer’s legacy long legs for many generations. Company truly set Sondheim’s artistic reputation as a mature composer and he worked musical marvels with George Furth’s libretto. The Ladies Who Lunch is sharp as ever about despairing over the meaningful substance of existence. Being Alive is the perfect musical contemplation of how friendship, companionship and love can supersede even the negatives of each one’s flaws. One might believe that the fear of being alone is enough to keep a couple together but that still does not make marriage any less viable an institution than some might believe otherwise. In fact, Sondheim characterized Company as his strongest show for marriage, even as his characters struggle with the challenges of keeping their idealism intact.
But, while Being Alive appears near the end of this delightful compilation, it is the combined force of two songs from Merrily We Roll Along, which end the show by reinforcing the optimistic, ideal premise of Being Alive. In Merrily We Roll Along, the characters perhaps come closer than in any other Sondheim musical to seeing every value collapse in trying to manage their circumstances but they also realize that even in the midst of dire predicaments it still matters to hold onto one’s values.
Merrily We Roll Along deals with the fears of selling out — of finding how success tempts us as the convenient vulnerable path that compromises our values. Sondheim and Furth adapted Merrily We Roll Along from the 1934 play with the same title, which Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman wrote. The play and the musical follow the same reverse chronology, where the protagonist is successful but thoroughly unhappy in his middle age and gradually he moves back in time toward his idealistic youth. Thus, Putting It Together ends appropriately with two classics from Merrily We Roll Along: Like It Was and Old Friends. It was Sondheim’s musical philosophy that while we cannot physically go back to our past, we should never fear going back in our cognitive sense to recapture the ideals and dreams of our youth. Indeed, the Pioneer Theatre Company production of Putting It Together resonates as the appropriate tribute to the best sentiments of Sondheim’s ingenious paragon of American musical theater par excellence.
The run continues through March 18. The show moves in a splendid clip through both acts. For tickets and more information, see the Pioneer Theatre Company website.