For years, theatergoers have wondered if they would get the chance to see a new Stephen Sondheim musical on Broadway again. Well that seems to have happened with the start of the exciting new production of Society at the Jacobs Theater. This genre-shifting delight starring Katrina Lenk isn’t so much a revival or overhaul of the historic 1970 production as it is the yin-yang of the original. This is a practically new Sondheim spectacle that will sit comfortably side by side next to the original.
Sondheim’s death on November 26 takes a heavy toll on all of Broadway and especially this musical, which was truly its flagship show. Marianne Elliott gave a touching speech ahead of the November 26 performance. She spoke of Sondheim’s active interest and work on George Furth’s book and the lyrics of Society. It wasn’t just a matter of changing a few gender-specific pronouns.
There are a lot of changes in the lyrics and the dialogue. David says Bobbie reminds him of the Chrysler Building, not the Seagram’s Building. And the girls who play the woman are now in their prime and holding a copy of Time, just to keep in touch. People who know the play well enough will notice them; those who know it too well may feel a bit off balance, especially those who are trying to sing along. It is not talking about God and the decade to come that will allow you to go through a verse; so don’t try, just hum if you have to.
Sondheim’s words have been accused of being cold and callous. There are too many examples to the contrary. Society, alone, has the touching “Someone Is Waiting” and “Being Alive”, a hymn to the importance of relationships.
Sondheim was a terrier in his defense of his book authors. One even suggested the smallest change to the book to say We ride happily at their own risk. In Society, this has never been a problem. The book is solid and the interplay between text and lyrics is fluid.
Considering the quality of the music and lyrics, which have resulted in several excellent distribution albums, one can easily forget how much of the book by Society is. And Elliott has assembled a cast of comic book veterans who are at the top of their game. Jennifer Simard is a chameleon. Hilarious like a gaming nun in Disaster, she is unrecognizable here as Sarah (is anyone still wearing a suit?). She doesn’t miss a thing. His interaction with Christopher Sieber as Harry as a couple ready to fall from two different wagons is one of the Society the highlights of the comedy.
Relationships and dynamics have changed and his involvement has been extended. When Elliott finished his speech, Patti LuPone, a longtime Sondheim performer, touched on dedicating the production to Sondheim’s memory. Obviously, Sondheim’s involvement was more than just a technical level.
At the center of it all is Bobbie, almost a number, a blank slate that everyone projects their needs, wants, and anxieties onto. She slips left in life, unable to commit to marriage or to someone, and spend time with his friends. She is perfectly content to be relatively satisfied with her status, except when these friends decide to help her, freely dispensing advice that comes at a price: her mental well-being. At best, it receives mixed signals; at best, she has mixed feelings. Unlike his Bobby ancestors, however, his anxiety is complicated, more internally driven by his body clock. If a 35-year-old forgets it’s spinning, it looks like there is someone nearby to remind her.
Bobbie is a tough role: if she’s not an Alice in a Wacky Friends Wonderland, then she’s at least a Jerry in a town full of Kramers. Lenk is perfect in the role of Bobbie, whose biological clock is probably running harder for her friends than for her. She is a good friend, single, caring and attractive. And she can sing longingly in “Marry Me a Little” and passionately in “Being Alive”. She is the glue that holds this business together and what Society together.
When it comes to songs, Sondheim really spreads wealth. Every artist has at least one moment to shine.
Amy from the 1970 version is now Jamie, a gay man, and the song “Getting Married Today” is a little more believable here. While men and women both have a certain ambivalence and anxiety about marriage, when it comes to marriages, it seems to me that women – a shallow white man – have at least a focus and determination that rivals Patton taking Palermo. Either way, Matt Doyle’s electric performance of this nervous breakdown set to music is quite a spectacle.
In 2011, LuPone played Joanna in the Lincoln Center production of Society opposite Neil Patrick Harris. Playing Joanna in Lenk presents a whole different dynamic. Her “Ladies Who Lunch” always brings the house down, but her woman-to-woman interactions with Bobbie vs. Bobby are completely different. She serves this interpretation with more humor, but still with a bile hunter.
Too often Sondheim is viewed as a genius, as if words and music flow easily from his mind to the stage. This, however, undoes all of the hard work that clearly goes into his art. A Little Forest probably gave it their all for the Blackwing pencils they needed to write and rewrite the songs that seem so easy. And somewhere in his house is a well-annotated copy of Clement Wood Unabridged rhyme dictionary and an equally marked Roget’s thesaurus, which he readily admits to using a lot. All of this is evident in the redesign of Society. His genius, of course, was to make it seem so easy.
The great filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch reportedly had a sign in his office that read something like: ‘How can we improve this scene? One can easily imagine that Sondheim has a similar sign somewhere, if not in his workspace, then certainly in his head. His attention to detail is evident in every word he says and notes in this (and that) Society.
Finally, casting albums have often been the gateway to Sondheim addicts. They allow you to repeatedly listen to and savor her words and music. You can see how her songs hold up so well on their own, outside of the libretto. What they don’t do is give the listener an idea of ââhow well the text and lyrics are integrated, especially on this show. The songs are mixed seamlessly with dialogue, sometimes long parts of it.
And if nothing comes Square One, the Luis BuÃ±uel project on which Sondheim was working with David Ives, then this new Society is a farewell as beautiful as one could wish from the greatest theater composer of many generations. So get up, get yourself a Sazerac sling, and raise your glasses to this wonderful new production.
Society plays at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, 242 West 45e Street, New York. For more information and tickets, visit CompanyMusical.com. Proof of vaccination is required for entry and masks must be worn inside the theater at all times.