The strange relationship between Max’s work and the musical theatre is both mutual and to some extent obvious. Hit shows tend to centre on character: performance art, then. Despite its sense of force and purpose in design, Max’s main character is almost a preposterous stereotype – he’s amoral, educated but very ignorant. He’s the gruff cliché, the predatory tool of an illicit political system. Max exists on the opposite side of the musical theatre spectrum to Sondheim and Hal Prince’s Glass Menagerie.
But then, Sondheim’s lyrics are inspired by the art and history of the time – he’s a rock poet at heart. There is tremendous stuff in Every Time I Write To You – an amazing piece of piano writing, written in the late 60s on a typewriter that was still capable of formatting complete sentences. And this Partenope kind of double album is a shockingly muscular piece of work, full of verbose, complex dialogue between characters and sound design that creates all the intimacy and resonance without feeling dithery or over-processed.
This revival of Sondheim’s Assassins doesn’t live up to that sound and magic. In fact, it can feel almost jarring – it’s too slavish to the work of Max’s collaborators, too anxious to be edgy or downbeat.
Max is the writer of The Songs of Leonard Bernstein, Leonore, leaving us with a hard-edged piece of musical archival music for the video screen in the lobby, showcasing Bernstein’s favourite melodies, occasionally accompanied by a still image of Leonard, then Leonard whispering those lyrics over the music.
The show opens with Two Girls/Two Boys, from Porgy & Bess: “…fascinated with boys…too busy thinking to act upon them…” A lone figure, a minor antagonist is brought to life, a patsy. But then we have the perfect confessional from the play A Little Night Music: “Forgive me your stupidity,
for your stupidity?”.
It’s a tantalising start – a chance to turn the cynic into a hero. But from then on, the show-within-a-show is a grey area. It becomes confusing and a little flat. Max’s second act work is here more about the plotting and manipulation than it is about the plot and the manipulation. The utterly barmy plot lines don’t hold up – especially the one about the double agent, the Russian masquerade, the buzz killing, the carnival carnality, the love-at-first-sight combo, and the “ice cream salesman”, these all come to a messy, befuddling, sorry-we-missed-each-other-in-the-streets close-ups on individual faces.
As Max’s second act works grinds to a halt with the ten assassination plots, the plot to overthrow the North Korean regime becomes the plot to assassinate Sondheim (how could it possibly be otherwise?) There are moments when the audience is tempted to shout: “shut up.” “Stop! There’s a score to be written!” “That’s funny, what has he written? It’s gibberish!”
Some feel the first scene, which sends Sondheim, played as a war veteran returning from Korea, into a black mode, from which he won’t emerge, was designed to say, “This is what we’ve built around Sondheim. The most powerful piece of showbiz theatre ever. This is the way showbusiness was done. He’s cold. Out of the picture. Tolerated, even.” But then, why should Sondheim’s work be allowed to permeate musical theatre at all?
But Sondheim clearly wanted to be in the show, and why not? It’s a brilliant piece of writing, the stuff of legend – and it’s important to remember that he wrote it in total obscurity and complete isolation, away from the sensibilities of Broadway – and now, we get the chance to hear and see it performed in a blistering take on it, conceived and directed by David Esbjornson, who was an invited guest at Max and Bernstein’s apartment. It’s truly astonishing, beautiful, hilarious, emotional and, ultimately, moving.