Breaking up is hard to do – not just in relationships. When a song doesn’t fit in a musical, it can get cut from the final production. Despite all the effort and emotion that sustained it, the tune is unceremoniously dumped. But it ain’t over till it’s over. Those songs can be rekindled by their creators or, as with the Stephen Sondheim revue Marry Me a Little, lovingly matched together by others.
Conceived by Craig Lucas and Norman René, and first staged in 1980, this one-act musical unites a dozen or so songs chopped from Follies, A Little Night Music and other Sondheim classics, with a few that did make it into his musicals. They are repurposed for the story of two lonely hearts in New York, each stuck at home on a Saturday night.
The Barn’s online version, filmed on stage during a run that closed early due to this month’s lockdown, imagines the couple have just broken up. Framed side by side on Gregor Donnelly’s set, in not quite matching apartments, the pair (played by Rob Houchen and Celinde Schoenmaker) contemplate being newly single when “the urge is to mingle”.
This carousel of aching regrets and sardonic score-settling comes with flashes of rapture, too, as each veers from picking through the ruins of the relationship to savouring potential new ones. And, just because some of these songs were rejected, it doesn’t mean they don’t delight. This is Sondheim – you’d want to read the man’s shopping list. The bittersweet Uptown, Downtown – axed from Follies – juxtaposes two bars as a woman “sits at the Ritz with her splits of Mumms / And starts to pine for a stein with her Village chums”.
As with a jukebox musical, it’s hit and miss whether the lyrics land in the context of their new narrative. The musical is sung-through, with no book, and Kirk Jameson’s production uses mobile phone messages and Instagram histories in telling the story. In a comic touch, Bring on the Girls, about Follies’ showgirls, is sung while the newly unattached Houchen swipes through Tinder. But the unavoidably prosaic nature of the breakup texts shown on screen can distract from the suppleness of Sondheim’s lyrics. When Schoenmaker delivers Can That Boy Foxtrot! while responding to a string of booty-call messages, the candid elegance of the song gets lost amid the emojis and a horny selfie.
Backed by musical director Arlene McNaught on piano, Schoenmaker and Houchen capture the range of complicated emotions at play in Sondheim’s lyrics – the joy of sharing a home “with the nippers [and] the dog with your slippers” (from Little White House) and the frustration of finding somebody “always there, sitting in the chair where you want to sit” (from Happily Ever After). They are best at conveying the balance, as captured in the song Marry Me a Little, of sharing your life but keeping something back for yourself.
Jameson succeeds, too, in presenting the pair as being alone together, whether singing solos or duets. Meetings and leavings, moments and eternities, blur together in these songs which are taken from shows that stretch over some 20 years but return to the same questions and look at love with the same gimlet eye.
Roving camerawork keeps the film from ever feeling static and, even at just 50 minutes, if you’re missing live theatre it’s a tonic – with Schoenmaker and Houchen giving it just enough kick.