Try eating butter without bread. Or salt without fries. Without something solid to get your teeth into, the texture is all wrong.
It's the same with songs taken out of the musicals in which they belong. Without the dramatic story, they're hard to swallow.
In "Putting It Together," we get more than 30 songs from the musicals of a master, Stephen Sondheim. But without a dramatic context, they add up to far less than the sum of the parts.
The show is clearly an attempt by producer Cameron Mackintosh to repeat one of his first successes. In 1976, first in London and then on Broadway, he had a hit with another compilation, "Side by Side With Sondheim."
That show seemed to prove that Sondheim's songs could hold the stage without the stories for which they were originally written.
But "Side by Side" could draw on the numbers that were most obviously able to stand alone: "Send in the Clowns," "Losing My Mind," "Broadway Baby."
"Putting It Together" doesn't have that luxury. It has to rely on later Sondheim shows in which the songs are even more integrated into the story.
Numbers like "Country House" and "Could I Leave You?" from "Follies" (1971) and "Marry Me a Little" from "Company" (1970) survive the journey reasonably well. But tunes from more-recent work like "Sunday in the Park With George" (1984) or "Merrily We Roll Along" (1981) seem orphaned, forlorn.
The creative team tries to give the evening a dramatic shape by imagining the interplay of two couples at a boozy party. Carol Burnett and George Hearn are the older, richer pair. John Barrowman and Ruthie Henshall are a younger couple with their feet on the first rungs of the Sondheim ladder that leads from infatuation to bitter disillusion.
But the production itself acknowledges the inadequacy of this notion by adding a fifth wheel. Bronson Pinchot plays what the program calls The Observer, though the rest of us might be inclined to call him the Man Who Sings the Songs That Don't Fit Anywhere Else.
Without a working dramatic premise, the performers have to approach the songs like planes trying to take off on a short runway. They simply don't have the room to launch into a graceful emotional flight. So they fill in the blank spaces by overacting.
One example is Burnett's rendition of "Not Getting Married Today." Sondheim's brilliant lyrics are perfectly poised between hilarity and pain. But Burnett seems to feel obliged to make sure the audience gets the point. She goes all-out hysterical, and the song turns flat and crude.
This happens again and again. Only Henshall, who has a voice strong enough to take the songs on her own terms, avoids it.
If he really wants to celebrate Sondheim, Mackintosh should bring us one of his full musicals putting Broadway together again with one of its greatest composers.
“I worship the ground he kicks me around on," sings Carol Burnett in "Putting it Together," a compilation of some 35 songs from Stephen Sondheim works of the last two decades.
Originally produced in 1992 with Julie Andrews and revamped in Los Angeles last year, the show is an uneasy blend of Sondheim and Las Vegas glitz. Director Eric D. Schaeffer has structured the thing so as to hint at a plot -- or rather a set of five characters in consistent situations and with consistent attitudes to life.
There are The Wife (Burnett), The Husband (George Hearn), The Younger Man (John Barrowman), The Younger Woman (Ruthie Henshall) and The Observer (Bronson Pinchot). Done up in spangly Bob Mackie black (Burnett) or plain black (all the others) and positioning themselves strategically around Bob Crowley's neon-and-plastic cocktail party set, the five tell again and again that everything is hollow and phony and tired.
Pinchot and Burnett try to lighten and warm up the proceedings with, on the one hand, impish wit that teases the overall gloomy tone and, on the other, goofy slapstick and shtick. Pinchot is an especially welcome presence as he squats on the stage and explains Sondheim's plots; later, he pops up between numbers with one-word song-summaries like "Revenge" and "Desperation."
The central marriage is in trouble as Husband eyes Younger Woman and Wife fumes -- that's about it for story. Wife delivers a bitchy putdown of Younger Woman, "Lovely," but the lovable and deeply nice Burnett softens the malice with guffaws, singing, for instance, "Lovely is the only thing she can doooooo."
The Wife's view on marriage is expressed in titles like "My Husband the Pig" and "Every Death a Little Death." She finds a boytoy in "maid" Pinchot. In "Country House" and "Could I Leave You?" the pair try, half-heartedly to save their union. They're rich and cultured, you see, and hence empty and blasé. In the first act, poor Burnett has to be glum a lot, while Hearn, Barrowman and Henshall mope about underused.
There's more energy in the second act. Burnett has two rousers: the savagely misogynistic "Ladies Who Lunch" and "Not Getting Married Today," which becomes in her hands a daffy -- and welcome -- piece of slapstick.
Barrowman gets a strong moment in "Live Alone and Like It," as does Henshall in the classically ditsy show-stopper "More." (Both these lightish songs are, significantly, from the pop flick "Dick Tracy," whereas the bleak, masochistic ditty the young couple have in the first act, "Unworthy of Your Love," was originally sung by Squeaky Fromme to Charlie Manson in "Assassins"!!!)
Misogyny is again on view in "There's Always a Woman," a Burnett-Henshall duet. Toward the end, Burnett sings, in "Like It Was," that "nothing's the way it was and I'm starting not to care." "Putting it Together" ought logically to end here, but this production hasn't the courage of its despair; it wants to be acid and apple pie at the same time. And so after the unconvincing "Old Friends" finale there's an eternal curtain call featuring giggles, pratfalls and door-slamming. Huh?
The Broadway revivals of "Kiss Me, Kate" and of this within days are too tempting to ignore. Both Porter and Sondheim are clever wordsmiths adept at expressing emotional disillusion and sexual bitterness, but Porter doesn't linger there. His constant message (and it's one he earned the right to preach) is cheer up, be brave and bright. Sondheim's self-pitying sourness only seems more grown-up; it's actually shallow and callow.
For the years she ruled as the queen of television variety shows, from 1967 to 1978, Carol Burnett was a warm spot in the seas of medium cool. At a moment when comedy kept turning darker and angrier, Ms, Burnett offered brilliant clowning without bile, satire without a sneer. Few contemporary comedians have commanded such undiluted good will, and even today this actress can't appear on a stage or screen without inspiring an instant flood of affection.
Now all this warmth is being put to the cause of removing the chill from the songs of Stephen Sondheim, a composer whose talents are as intellectual as Ms. Burnett's are instinctive, in the misconceived revue "Putting It Together," which opened Sunday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. And as experiments in thermodynamics go, this one is a nonstarter. It's not that Ms. Burnett, who became a star on Broadway four decades ago in "Once Upon a Mattress," doesn't have what it takes anymore to seduce a live audience; she does, in spades.
It's that her tools of seduction are the opposite of Sondheim's. The composer of such benchmark musicals as "Company," "Follies" and "Sweeney Todd" writes intricate, introspective melodies and lyrics with a heart that is vital but also hidden and guarded. Ms. Burnett has always won her heart on the outside, and even at her broadest and loudest, she reads as both friendly and vulnerable.
"Putting It Together," a reworking of the Sondheim evening first seen at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1993 (starring Ms. Burnett's friend Julie Andrews), asks her to be sharp and brittle. Ms. Burnett can caricature brittleness deliciously, but actually being brittle is a chore for her. It's like asking a luffa sponge to function as a razor blade.
While there are moments in the production, directed by Eric D. Schaeffer, when the Burnett and Sondheim sensibilities coalesce in shiver-making flashes, they are sadly infrequent. The whole tone of the show, which strings together Sondheim songs to shape a loose story of five urbanites at a cocktail party, is out of sync with its own material. "Putting It Together" is perversely determined to make something lite of the dark bard of the American musical.
These intentions are made clear in the opening moments, which find Bronson Pinchot, who plays a character called the Observer, racing down an aisle of the Barrymore dressed as an usher. Pinchot's mission is to disarm with blithe stand-up commentary about Sondheim. One example: "Deep down, even his friends are afraid that he's going to be cerebral, difficult, complicated, wordy…And at dinner, he is."
There is also a gag reference to Ms. Burnett's being lost in a taxi, having followed directions given her by Kathie Lee Gifford, the perky television host who is to substitute for Ms. Burnett at some performances. The mood is firmly established: This is going to be an amiable, jokey evening in which audiences can get cozy with people who show up in People.
What follows sticks fairly close to the form of the Manhattan Theater Club production, with a few substitutes in the lineup of songs. Ms. Burnett and the estimable George Hearn portray a rich, middle-aged and deeply disenchanted older couple; Ruthie Henshall (the smashing London star, late of "Chicago") and John Barrowman are the sexy, wave-making younger pair at the party. She has predatory ambitions; he has no discernible character whatsoever.
Pinchot is he who watches, Singing numbers plucked from shows ranging from "Merrily We Roll Along" to "A Little Night Music," from "Sunday in the Park With George" to the movie "Dick Tracy," the five characters make love and war with one another before arriving at a spurious finale of cheerful reconciliation.
This is accomplished before Bob Crowley's neon-splashed, multilevel designs (with theme-heralding projections by Wendall K. Harrington), which may be meant to evoke the worldliness of William Hamilton cartoons but feel more like the swinger's playground of a set for the old "Laugh-In" series. The effect is at once cute and distancing. And as the show proceeds, the performers often seem to be disclaiming the material they deliver, as if to reassure us that any hard feelings they assume are only pretend.
What's more, each of them seems to have arrived from a different show-business universe. Watching them onstage is like looking at a supermarket tabloid cover in which pictures of different celebrities have been combined to create the illusion that they were photographed together. Ms. Henshall provides the same razzle-dazzle intensity she brought to "Chicago"; Barrowman contributes a pretty voice and a pretty face, though little else.
Pinchot, best known for the sitcom "Perfect Strangers," is winsomely puckish. Hearn, who was a memorable Sweeney Todd, is gentle, grave and low-key. His reflective version of that fine ballad of mid life angst, "The Road You Didn't Take" (from "Follies"), comes closer to suggesting a song's original context than any other number in the show, but he is largely eclipsed by the avidness of those around him.
The vulpine Ms. Henshall is, as always, compellingly watchable, but all that Fosse-style legwork seems a bit out of place here. There's no denying her star quality, and she stops the show with the gold digger's anthem "More" (from "Dick Tracy"), but her hard-sell flair is wasted on what is a trifle of a song. When she and Ms. Burnett square off as Clare Booth Luce-esque rivals in "There's Always a Woman" (from "Anyone Can Whistle"), they are so mismatched that it hurts.
Only rarely, in fact, does the presentation here bring out the best in either the songs or the singers. It was a lousy idea to have Pinchot, whose forte is light flippancy, to sing "War," a tense narrative of erotic conflict from "Night Music," while Ms. Henshall and Barrowman smilingly execute a sexual ballet. The pair is also bizarrely given the duet "Unworthy of Your Love," which was strong stuff when sung by characters representing Squeaky Fromme and John W. Hinckley Jr. in "Assassins," but turns watery out of context.
The real raison d'etre of "Putting It Together," however, is Ms. Burnett. Her fans (and I am one of them) will find that she remains an inspired master of rubber-faced mugging and goofy vocal inflections. And she has one searing moment of emotional nakedness, with a "Ladies Who Lunch" (from "Company") that finds the raw loneliness at the song's core.
She also pulls off the funniest variation on "Not Getting Married Today" (from "Company") that I've ever heard, slowing down the number's usual breakneck pace to give italicized, cartoonish weight to every element of a reluctant bride's anxiety. The moment is entirely Ms. Burnett's, however, not Sondheim's. Indeed, the composer's full presence is oddly absent throughout this evening devoted to his work.
As theatergoer fantasies go, Putting It Together would be hard to top, at least on paper. The five-person cast, headed by Carol Burnett, is alternately handsome, hilarious and sexy (sometimes all at once), the staging is stylish, and the songs are among the best in the Stephen Sondheim songbook.
What could go wrong? Lots of things, leaving this revue at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre labored and only intermittently engaging.
Any Sondheim revue drawing on past shows courts trouble because his songs are so specific to the plots and characters for which they're written.
This show has a five-character scenario - an older couple struggling with midlife crisis, a younger couple overcoming youthful ambivalence about intimacy and a gadfly comic character - brought together by the sort of smart urban party that seems a cliche when presented as an all-purpose theatrical device.
Inevitably, songs are chosen for their inner drama, which means there are lots of bitter pills of Sondheimesque truth (mostly about sexual exploitation) coming in a more relentless succession than in his typically well-sequenced non-revue scores. By intermission, you want to give up sex and fumigate your soul.
Another pitfall: Sondheim shows normally have a strength of dramatization that creates a world of their own. A plotless evening of vignettes such as this can never do that. Therefore, even classics such as The Ladies Who Lunch lack dramatic impact, their unflinching directness seeming like an aging novelty from previous decades.
Such problems might not be so obvious if the cast had more chemistry; without it, even the wittier touches from director Eric Schaeffer, who has utterly overhauled the 1993 version of the show that starred Julie Andrews at the Manhattan Theater Club, seem contrived amid the multitiered stage set of cubicles symbolizing everyone's isolation.
Only when chemistry is not needed does the show become what it might have been more consistently: a series of knockout star turns.
Burnett's gift for physical humor has never been better than in Not Getting Married Today. British stage star Ruthie Henshall brings her beguiling physical vigor and subversive mischief to Sondheim's paean to greed, More.
John Barrowman, another welcome British import, lends his Tom Cruise looks and lyrical tenor to Marry Me a Little.
TV and film actor Bronson Pinchot appears to be a genuine comic find with his hilarious show introduction, masquerading as an audacious, loquacious usher.
La Cage aux Folies star George Hearn is a suitable foil to Burnett, though his vocal tentativeness is emblematic of the show's iffy premise.
Carol Burnett and Stephen Sondheim are not, perhaps, a natural match. In the peerless variety show that made her a star, Burnett specialized in loopy caricature and vaudevillian shtick that are at several removes from the cool ironies that characterize Sondheim's dryer brand of wit. But a comic genius is a comic genius, and in fact Burnett's liberating touch provides much of the sparkle -- and, more intriguingly, the heart -- in "Putting It Together," a sleek, more stylish Broadway reworking of the Sondheim revue from 1992.
The show's Off Broadway incarnation occasioned Julie Andrews' return to the stage after an absence of 30 years, and the new version is providing a similar landmark for Andrews' longtime friend Burnett, who hasn't appeared in a Broadway musical for more than three decades.
You'd never guess it: Burnett is in terrific shape, vocally and otherwise, and while "Putting It Together" is a surprisingly weightless diversion, given the dense textures of Sondheim's oeuvre, it gives us a priceless opportunity to bask in the invigorating aura of a great performer.
Burnett's co-stars -- and by the end of the evening, you think of them as such -- are nonetheless able talents in their own rights. Her romantic opposite in the show's musical game of quadrille is Broadway veteran George Hearn (they are called the Husband and the Wife in the cast list, Amy and Charlie elsewhere).
They are joined at a party that sets the vague whisper of a narrative in motion by the Younger Woman, played by British firecracker Ruthie Henshall (lately Velma Kelly in "Chicago"), and the Younger Man, enacted by a young man of cleft chin and shiny tenor named John Barrowman.
The fifth performer, the impish and appealing Bronson Pinchot, introduces the evening with some patter and a genial "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" (from "The Frogs"), wittily rewritten by Sondheim for the occasion, replete with references to the show's producer Cameron Mackintosh.
Pinchot, as the Observer, punctuates the emotional turning points among the central quartet with occasional single-word vocal subtitles: "Revenge," "Seduction," etc.
This being a romp through the mindscape of the man who virtually singlehandedly brought the Broadway musical into the age of anxiety, there are no pitstops at "Bliss" or "Satisfaction," of course. Sondheim songs from some 13 works are woven together to suggest the brittle marriage of the older couple coming almost, but not quite, to grief when the husband's eye strays toward the charms of Henshaw's character.
A highlight of the first act is "Lovely," from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," in which the lively rapport between Burnett and Henshaw is first established. Henshaw, in flirtatious vamp mode, sings the song as a paean to her own not-so-modest charms; Burnett follows with a devastatingly silly impersonation of her every vocal inflection and carefree kick.
Their interplay, one of the evening's real pleasures, is continued throughout the evening, reaching its apex in the deliciously vicious "There's Always a Woman," and it might remind you of the way Burnett performed so winningly with the female co-stars and guests on her variety show. This is a star who can fill the spotlight when necessary, but also knows how to graciously share the stage.
Henshaw is here revealed to Broadway as a performer of major gifts, who can suggest a cockney tart one minute, Julie Andrews herself the next. She's all sultry languor crooning "Sooner or Later," the rather bland torch song from "Dick Tracy," and later savvily tackles the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of "More," also from the film. There is more than a trace of mannerism in some of her singing, but the voice is an arresting, distinctive one.
The male half of this romantic quadrangle doesn't make as strong an impression as the distaff one. Hearn relied more on interpretive finesse than vocal power at the performance reviewed (he was reportedly suffering a cold). He was at his best opposite Burnett, singing "Follies'" jagged "Country House."
The various thrusts and parries of the song were tinged with an authentically chilling weariness. A capable singer, Barrowman is nonetheless most remarkable for his handsomeness -- alas you can't help thinking that Barrowman better personifies Calvin Klein's Obsession than any of Sondheim's.
Also handsome is the production, featuring a gorgeous set by Bob Crowley that's a stylized X-ray of a Manhattan apartment building seemingly inspired by magazine art direction of the '60s. Eames chairs of various absurd sizes sit in blank white chambers outlined in thick black bands and strips of colored neon. The various emotional hues of the songs are elegantly reflected in Howard Harrison's colorful lighting.
The song selection will please some Sondheim lovers, and maybe exasperate others. The inclusion of four tunes from "Dick Tracy" (who knew there were four songs in "Dick Tracy"?) suggests that the composer, who has presumably had significant input, believes they have been underappreciated and underexposed. Despite accomplished performances here, however, that contention may not be shared by all his admirers.
The underlying problem is that Sondheim does not generally write songs -- he writes shows. There is inevitably much lost when portions of his musicals are mixed and matched as they are here, though Eric D. Schaeffer's slick direction avoids any seriously jarring changes of tone or style.
The party setting is cleverly chosen, but it also suggests the show's essential defect: Too many of the musical numbers are like conversations overheard at a party that are merely the tips of emotional icebergs. They are intimations of dramas of greater and more gripping consequence that we are not privy to.
But Burnett, at least, banishes any thoughts of structural flaws when she's spotlit center stage, delivering one of her several solo numbers. She always used her loopy, absurdist comic style to reveal the fears and follies of real human beings (as the hapless Eunice, in fact, she was so piteously sad it sometimes ceased to be funny).
Here the absurdity is used only to enliven and enlarge the inherent humor of "The Ladies Who Lunch" and "Getting Married Today." Elsewhere it's just the songs' humanity she projects, in the bitter "Could I Leave You" and the sad and wistful "Like It Was," and she projects it with a power and gravity as surprising as it is thrilling.