American Masters

Hosted by

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

In the world of theatrical American music two men stand out. In musicals, it's Stephen Sondheim and in opera, it's John Adams. This week, here in Los Angeles, both men are receiving faithful and lively revivals of the first works they composed in these forms they are most famous for.

First there is Sondheim, who turned 80 on Monday. Sondheim is without a doubt the most respected (and honored) Broadway composer alive today. (On Sunday it was announced that a theater would be named after him in Times Square.) Last week, I was at a birthday gala thrown for him in New York where performers from his original productions (Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters from Sunday in the Park with George, Elaine Stritch from Company) sang selections from those and other Sondheim shows with accompaniment from the New York Philharmonic. The takeaway from that evening was being reminded of how much Sondheim's music has shaped and changed the Broadway musical over the last forty years. And how his music and lyrics, which once seemed so daring or avant-garde (or as so many critics once claimed: unhum-able) are now regarded as show-tunes staples.

It was a treat to follow up that evening back here in Westwood with Reprise Theatre Company's new revival of Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Sure, Sondheim wrote the lyrics to songs in West Side Story and Gypsy (and purists will say, "Don't forget about Saturday Night"), but Forum was his first Broadway show—where all of the music was his. (It should be noted that Sondheim has often said that Forum is his favorite of all his musicals)

This Reprise production (directed by David Lee) has a few surprises for those familiar with the show only from the Original Cast Album with Zero Mostel. A number songs have been added or swapped, notably, "Farewell," sung with gusto here at the Freud by Ruth Williamson. Besides this shuffling however, there isn't much that's novel in this production. The comedy is broad, the colors bold, and the acting big. Lee Wilkof doesn't quite fill the stage as Pseudolous, but he's an affable presence as the freedom hungry Roman slave. Luckily, Wilkoff and his castmates all seemed to be having fun—so did the audience.

John Adams turned a spry 63 last month. He's never written a musical, though his 1995 work about the Northridge Earthquake, features a Forum-length title, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, and featured a few Broadway stars on the CD. Adams writes plenty of symphonic music (his piece City Noir kicked of Gustavo Dudamel's inaugural concert at Disney Hall last year) and even tried his hand at film composing recently, but he's best known for his operas like Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China. Nixon was seen at LA Opera twenty years ago, and it's been absent here in Nixon's backyard since then.

nixon.jpgIt's great that Long Beach Opera decided to revive Nixon in China this season, but in doing so the South Bay's spunky little opera company makes Adams' work sound like a musical. They do this by relying heavily on amplification for the singers. Mics are normal on Broadway (and in bigger LA shows, like Reprise's Forum) but opera, even modern American opera, is still about the voice and the orchestra. LBO's production (directed by Peter Pawlik) is impressive in many respects and worth seeing. The amplification does rob the music of some detail and nuance can't negate the full power of Adams' portrait of a president and history.

The encore performance of John Adams' Nixon in China is Saturday night at the Terrace Theatre in Long Beach. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs through Sunday at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: (L-R) Michael Kostroff (Marcus Lycus) Lee Wilkof (Pseudolus) Tonya Kay (Vibrata) and and Erich Bergen (Hero) in the Reprise Theatre Company production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Photo credit: John Ganun