Requiem for a Genius

I had just gotten home from work and was rushing to change clothes and head to the national tour of Hadestown when I got an alert on my phone from The New York Times. “Stephen Sondheim is dead at 91,” it said. I stood there in disbelief for a moment, wrestling with the news that a man I had never met was no longer with us. After catching my breath, I performed the traditional next step of millennial grief: I shared the article to my social media pages so that everyone I had ever met could grieve with me.

Only they didn’t grieve. The article was barely noticed and the death of Sondheim was scarcely acknowledged by the occupants of my various social feeds. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, musical theatre is a fairly niche interest, but I couldn’t help my frustration at noticing that Sondheim had been unappreciated by so many. It seems criminal. In fact, to my mind, it is.

I was nine when The Wonderful World of Disney premiered their brand new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. You know, the one with Brandy and Whitney Houston. Both Brandy and Whitney shine in their roles, as does the whole cast. But there was one performance that struck my little gay heart especially hard: that of Bernadette Peters in the role of the Wicked Stepmother. From the first time I saw her on my screen with her dress that was too tight for full strides and her red curls piled atop her head, I was in love. This, I thought, was a goddess. I hold that opinion to this day.

After watching Cinderella, I consumed as much of her work as I could and it was her Carnegie Hall concert album that first introduced me to the work of Stephen Sondheim. Now, Peters is often cited as the greatest interpreter of Sondheim’s work, but of course I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that she sang those songs as though they had been personally crafted for her by an angel. To say I was transfixed is putting it mildly. In the years that followed, I dug deeper into her body of work, including Sunday in the Park with George, Anyone Can Whistle, Gypsy, and of course, Into the Woods. This, my friends, was my Sondheim root.

Expanding beyond Peters’ contributions to the Sondheim catalog, I remember asking for a copy of the original cast album of Company one Christmas. I played it again and again, driving my parents mad. There is something to be said about a cast album from the 1970s resonating so strongly with a teenaged boy in the early 2000s. Sondheim understood timelessness better than perhaps any composer of his time. He understood the universality of human experience, so he centered his works around it. He understood that at some point in each of our lives, we blow out our birthday candles alone. The risk of building his shows around such vulnerabilities is what made Sondheim a genius.

Despite the deep respect I hold for Sondheim, it wasn’t until very recently that I really understood his impact. Around the time that I wrote my entry on Follies, I began to look at his work with fresh eyes and something clicked in me. This wasn’t an artist who ever tried to write the next big earworm, this was an artist who had something to say and that something resonated with millions around the world and will continue to resonate for generations to come. Because Sondheim had a secret weapon that so many artists have lacked: humanity. And that is the key to immortality.

Cheers to Sondheim. And thanks, Steve.

How to Spice it Up. Or Not.

I don’t know what I expected when my random number generator landed on I Love My Wife, but it wasn’t a musical about a foursome, that’s for sure. And yes, I’m talking about that type of foursome. The title evokes the kind of quiet romance one would expect from a Diane Keaton movie. The content, on the other hand, could easily be directed by Judd Apetow. That said, it’s a surprise that I had have never heard of this show because it was a fairly decent hit when it opened in 1977 and has been successfully produced numerous times since. Still, this is my first exposure.

I Love My Wife opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on April 17, 1977, running for 857 performances. The music is by Cy Coleman while Michael Stewart wrote the book and lyrics. It focuses on two couples who find themselves planning a ménage-à-quatre with each other one Christmas Eve. The Broadway production received attention for both its racy content and the unique use of its musicians, who both acted and sang in the production while also serving as the band. In fact, all four members of the band won a shared Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical for their performances. The musical has been performed all over the world, including the West End, Australia, South Africa, and Los Angeles. There are two cast albums commercially available for I Love My Wife, but the 1982 Australian cast recording is incredibly rare and I was unable to stream it or get a copy. As it stands, I am sticking to the original Broadway cast album for now.

The album starts off innocently enough, with the characters reminiscing about their high school days together and ogling over their old bully, an ugly duckling named Monica. But by the third track, “By Threes,” the heat is turned up and it’s clear that we’re here for sex. “By Threes” is an upbeat song about discovering ones desire for a threesome and it serves as a sort of thesis for the show with the lyrics “Goodbye to strain and marital strife/Go break the joyous news to your wife.” Just to be clear, the idea of a threesome is the “joyous news” in question. This seems like a good time to mention that I Love My Wife is a work of satire. It doesn’t take the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s seriously and seeks to lampoon it in a way that’s comfortable for the average theatre goer. But hey, it can still be a good time and “By Threes” is up there among its best numbers.

The best song in the show is without question “Love Revolution,” performed beautifully by Ilene Graff as Cleo. Here we see a woman doesn’t want the world’s new liberated attitude towards sex to pass her by, and she lets us know with a terrific power ballad. Another song I really enjoyed is “Lovers on Christmas Eve.” It’s a lounge duet about the joys of sex on Christmas Eve, and while I can’t say it should a holiday standard (the lyrics include “Santa Claus turns me on/One ‘ho ho ho’ and I’m gone”), it is perfectly weird. I love an off the wall Christmas song so it gets a thumbs up from me.

Lenny Baker, Joanna Gleason, Ilene Graff, and James Naughton in the original Broadway production.

Speaking of weird songs, there were a few that had me double checking to make sure that this show was in fact written by the lyricist who gave us Hello, Dolly! The first is “Sexually Free,” which is about the virtue of having sexual experiences beyond societal expectations. The lyrics deserve a better melody but at the same time the song’s theme is explored throughout the whole show so I don’t think we can complain much. But then there’s arguably the least sexy song in the show, “A Mover’s Life.” It’s a bizarre ode to a career as a moving man and processing the emotions of dealing with damaged and forgotten furniture, including a sink that is sad to be left behind. Yes, in this man’s head sinks have feelings, too. Finally, we have “Ev’rybody Today is Turning On,” a song about drugs. Weed, coke, heroin, LSD, meth, poppers… they’re all here and everyone’s doing them to forget their troubles. None of these three songs landed for me, although that last one is the best of this bunch, but they were so bizarre that I couldn’t let them go unmentioned.

I don’t quite know what to make of I Love My Wife. In a way, I’m glad I stumbled upon it. There’s some really good songs here but there’s also some really questionable choices. From what I can tell from the lyrics and synopsis, our four sexual adventurers do not actually go through with their night of shared passion, and I honestly with they had. What a different show it would be if it actually celebrated sexual freedom. I understand it’s satire, but satirizing a culture of free love doesn’t sit well with me. Satire is best when it’s working against the status quo, not for it. So, as a whole work it is not my favorite, but the cast album is still good fun.

Musical: I Love My Wife

Music: Cy Coleman 

Lyrics: Michael Stewart

Opening Night on Broadway: April 17, 1977, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City

Cast Album I Listened To: 1977 original Broadway cast recording

Highlights: “By Threes,” “Love Revolution,” and “Lovers on Christmas Eve”

Overall Impression: If you’re looking for a cast album that will shock your uptight friends, this is the one. It has some very moments and it has some real head scratchers, too.