The cast of Company.
Courtesy of Upstart Productions
A passion for Sweeney’s ‘Company’
WRY BREAD - Philip Cu-Unjieng (The Philippine Star) - October 6, 2019 - 12:00am

By sheer coincidence, it’s Sondheim season “to the third degree” here in Manila. Upstart kicked it off with its staging of Company at the Maybank Theater and the following night, Philippine Opera Company’s (POC’s) Passion began its run at the RCBC. On Oct. 11, Atlantis ushers in Sweeney Todd at The Theatre at Solaire.

Three musicals from the gifted pen of one Stephen Joshua Sondheim, who’s now all of 89 years old, and is already regarded as one of the greatest lyricists (and composers) of his generation, if not of all-time.

Like many of you, my love affair with theater began with a musical — my parents took me to watch Oliver! on Broadway when I was nine years of age. But I must admit that as I got older, it wasn’t Sondheim who became my familiar or go-to. He did supply the lyrics to West Side Story, which I loved, but the accessibility of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals was easier to wrap your ears around — plus Webber had the commercial savvy of composing a stand-alone hit song for a good number of his musicals.

Without a doubt, it takes a more mature, cultivated sense of music and appreciation of conceptual execution to absorb the kind of magic that’s cast with Sondheim’s works. His songs resist predictable structures and melodies; they’re more thoughts set to music, like literary passages employing stream-of-consciousness. They’re so precise that a good number of performers actually find them more difficult than regular singing.

Company dates back to 1970, a plotless musical that’s founded on vignettes revolving around the 35th birthday celebration of single Robert, as planned by his friends who are couples — either married or engaged. In this thought-provoking comedy are songs that talk about relationships, family, dating and the realities of married life. In 1970, it was ground-breaking, musical theater as psychological, modern-day social realism, as opposed to the regular offerings of period pieces and escapist fare. This is a stirring ensemble piece, and Upstart nailed it!

Passion (1994) was inspired by Sondheim having watched the film Passione d’Amore by Ettore Scola. Set in 19th-century Risorgimento-era Italy, it’s about obsessive love. Rather than having the central character, Fosca, be the local town beauty, she’s a homely, sickly woman in love with a young, handsome soldier who’s in the midst of an affair with a beautiful married woman. A melodrama, the challenge is convincing us when Fosca and Giorgio fall in love, and Shiela Valderrama-Martinez is nothing short of magnificent here in the POC production.

In the case of Sweeney Todd (1979), Sondheim had watched Christopher Bond’s drama, and he loved how Bond took a villain of the Victorian-era penny dreadfuls and imbued him with deep psychological hues and motives. Excited, he conceptualized adding music to heighten the drama. Sondheim himself has described his Sweeney as a “black operetta,” with only 20-percent spoken word. Thematically, it touches on the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and elevates Sweeney to be more than some insane criminal. Jett Pangan and Lea Salonga head the Atlantis production.

As you can discern from above, these three musicals may all be Sondheim, but they’re as different as night and day. After all, who else but Sondheim would create musicals inspired by a single Georges Seurat pointillist painting (Sunday in the Park with George), or create a main cast composed of historical personages, whose common thread is that they successfully, or attempted to, assassinate US presidents (Assassins). By those standards, one of his better-known works, which ingeniously stitched together characters from different fairy tales (Into the Woods), almost sounds ordinary.

And that’s why I find it hard to reply when people ask which of the three Sondheim musicals they should watch. That’s like if someone wanted to watch Scorsese’s films, and asked for your recommendation, how do you pick among Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Aviator and The Age of Innocence? Each one brings something different to the table but they’re all priceless. Ultimately, it’s about understanding the genius of Sondheim, and being thankful we have such wonderful opportunities this season. *

COMPANY PHILIPPINE OPERA COMPANY’S
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