This is the third Sondheim show to premier in this decade, and like the previous two (Saturday Night and Bounce), it doesn’t represent him at his best, but even third-rate Sondheim is at least worthy of note. This show has a convoluted history, starting as a thirty-minute one-act originally performed in the Yale swimming pool, and later expanded into an hour-long concert piece that was given a noteworthy production and recording starring Nathan Lane.
‘The piece apparently captured Lane’s imagination, and he talked Sondheim into expanding it into a full-length musical, with Lane adapting Burt Shevelove’s original book and Sondheim writing several new songs to flesh out the original score.
Now, the original score of the one-act version was actually quite superb, highlighted by “Invocation and Instructions To the Audience” (originally a cut number from Forum), the disturbing “It’s Only a Play”, and the beautiful setting of Shakespeare “Fear No More”. The new songs are more of a mixed bag, especially the embarrassing “Dress Big”, but the quirkily jaunty “I Love To Travel”, the witty “Shaw”, and the moving ballad “Ariadne” are up to the level of the original score, so the show contains quite a bit of fine music.
The problem is that the show really only contains thirty minutes worth of plot. Even the hour-long version was heavily padded, and the attempts to expand it to a full two hours resulted in one of the most boring shows of the decade. This problem was compounded by Lane’s inexperience as a librettist: being one of the funniest men in Broadway history, he had no trouble coming up with hilarious one-liners, but there’s more to writing a Broadway libretto than that, and Lane was much less successful at actually structuring the story.
Like most Sondheim cult flops, this show’s cast album makes it out to be some kind of minor masterpiece, but the actual show seen in the theater was a trainwreck, albeit a rather fascinating one.