Meg Flather’s “Hammerstein & Sondheim— Carefully Taught”
It seems that since the passing of iconic Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, not a week has gone by without some new revue, or tribute, or memorial in his honor. Of course, he is deserving of as much praise as the world can manage to heap upon him, but even the heartiest of fans might be tempted to shout, “Enough already!” Then a show like Meg Flather’s Hammerstein & Sondheim: Carefully Taught comes along brimming with such intelligence, such passion, such insight, such daring, and such sheer talent to prove that there is still more to be said and more to be learned.
The secret to the show’s power and success is hinted at in one word in the title; that word is “taught.” The connective tissue running through the show (and through the relationship of the geniuses in the title) was the relationship of teacher to student, of master to acolyte. Transporting the show from “merely” entertaining to the lofty plateau of unforgettable, was Flather’s broadening of the concept to encompass not only Hammerstein’s relationship and influence on Sondheim, but to the very nature of the influence (both intentional and unplanned) that one person can have on another.—parents and children, lovers and their partners, artists and their creations, performers and their audience.
Helped at every turn by the insightful direction of Lennie Watts, and the beautiful arrangements and piano of Tracy Stark who occasionally partnered or backed up the singer with winning vocals of her own, the show nonetheless felt every moment like Meg Flather’s baby and we in the audience were thrilled to be present at its delivery. The inspired pairings and juxtapositions of songs never failed to enthrall and intrigue, and ultimately, deepen our understanding of the material and its creators; she matched songs and ideas with unerring accuracy. No doubt inspired by all this, tech director Adam DiCarlo contributed some of the best lighting and sound of his much-praised career. Every element combined to create a rich and satisfying whole that was much more than the sum of its impressive parts.
Opening old-school by singing as she walked through the audience to the stage of the Brick Room at Don’t Tell Mama, Flather captured us immediately with joy, excitement, and her glorious voice that filled the room as she sang, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” (from Oklahoma!). It set the stage for the evening and provided a perfect lead-in to “Sunday” (Sunday in the Park with George) transformed from its choral magnificence into a touchingly simple and poetic acknowledgement of beauty in the world.
“You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” (South Pacific) was darker and more aggressive than usual, meant as a lesson for adults rather than children. “Free” ( A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) proved that lesser-known material would be equally effective in exploring the themes of the show. It was also the first indication of how adept the singer is at physical comedy; her clowning was a lovely surprise that leavened the proceedings in just the right way.
The patter throughout was well-researched and charmingly delivered, and always on point to deepen the previous or set up the following number, offering a few revelations to even a dyed-in-the-wool musical theatre fan like yours truly. I am purposely trying to avoid the use of the word “inspired,” but it keeps coming up in my thoughts about the show—as in the medley of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” (Gypsy) and “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” (Showboat) which was raucously funny but given even more depth and relevance following spoken vignettes about the icons and their mothers.
Each of the songwriters had questioning, bittersweet, and wary views of love and romance which Flather explored, first in a breathless pairing of “Something Wonderful” (The King & I) and “What’s the Use of Wondering” (Carousel), and then in the understandably more modern and bittersweet rumination, “Sorry-Grateful” (Company). Allegro, a show as experimental (and unsuccessful) in its own way as Merrily We Roll Along, made the matching of “Allegro” with Merrily‘s “Rich and Happy” an unexpected pleasure filled with incisive lyrics arranged brilliantly to recall Kurt Weill. With this number alone, Flather might actually inspire a revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein rarity.
Having touched on the shadowy side of the writers, the singer then moved into the dark nights of the soul of both icons, combining “Lonely Room” (cut from the original Oklahoma! but restored in subsequent productions) with “Epiphany” (Sweeney Todd) in an electrifying blend of lacerating theatricality and cabaret intimacy the likes of which I have rarely witnessed. Add “stunning” to the list of words I want to use over and over to describe the experience of this show. As a palate cleanser after the dramatic fireworks of the previous songs, Flather turned to 19-year-old Stephen Sondheim and his attempted adaptation of Mary Poppins (written with Bea Lillie in mind) at the behest of Hammerstein who suggested he write four musicals as a lesson in writing for the theatre. That long ago “teaching moment” resulted in a “little song” called “The Sun is Blue,” filled with innocence and delight at its own wordplay, amplified by the singer’s obvious happiness at presenting that often sought, unicorn-like entity, an unknown Sondheim song. To completists, all I can say is, “Come for the discovery and stay for the wonder and majesty of the entire show!”
Flather brought the show to a close with the simple beauty of the last song that Hammerstein wrote, “Edelweiss” (The Sound of Music), and followed it with a song from Sondheim’s first Broadway show, an impassioned, yet never overwrought, “Somewhere” (West Side Story) that was the perfect ending to a perfect show. The beauty of the final number made it easy to imagine Oscar and Stephen—in some faraway place spending eternity writing together and continuing to learn from each other—and looking down and smiling at the beautiful eulogy that Meg Flather has created to keep their spirits alive in this realm.
Presented at Don’t Tell Mama, 343 W. 46th St., August 16, Sept. 10, Oct. 28, Nov. 19, 2023.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”