Stephen Sondheim had a genius for style. A few of his finest works had been tailored from very area of interest sources like penny dreadfuls (“Sweeney Todd”), epistolary novels (“Ardour”) and Roman comedies (“A Humorous Factor Occurred on the Option to the Discussion board”). Leaning exhausting into their particular kinds, he mined their expressive potential in songs that might hardly be improved and by no means sounded alike.
Nonetheless, for him and for others, surrealism was usually a style too far. Musical theater is surreal sufficient already. (Why did that taciturn man out of the blue begin singing? Who’re these dancing girls in lingerie?) Constructing a present on a willfully irrational supply dangers doubling down on the weirdness, resulting in “Huh?” outcomes like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” and Sondheim’s personal “Anybody Can Whistle.”
In order we waited what appeared like many years for what would change into his final musical, by no means fairly understanding if he’d ditched it or not, the dribbles of data he and his collaborators let drop urged that the brand new present — eventually titled “Here We Are” — could be misbegotten.
Not solely are the 2 Luis Buñuel movies that Sondheim and the playwright David Ives took as their inspiration maximally surrealist, they’re additionally surreal in several, seemingly incompatible methods. “The Discreet Allure of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) is a sunny romp a few group of mates who, looking for a meal, are mysteriously unable to seek out one. “The Exterminating Angel” (1962) is a a lot darker affair, about a cocktail party nobody can go away. Each motion pictures ridicule aristocrats who’re underfed but over-sated: folks for whom nothing is ever sufficient. However one is just like the silky tartness of a lemon meringue pie and the opposite like rooster bones caught in your throat.
The perfect excellent news about “Right here We Are,” the combo platter Buñuel musical that opened on Sunday on the Shed, practically two years after Sondheim’s dying in November 2021, is that it justifies the concept of merging these two works and succeeds in making a surrealist musical expressive. In Joe Mantello’s breathtakingly stylish and comely manufacturing, with a forged of can-you-top-this Broadway treasures, it’s by no means lower than a pleasure to look at because it confidently polishes and embraces its illogic. Musically, it’s absolutely if a bit skimpily Sondheim, and fully worthy of his catalog. That it’s also a bit chilly, solely often transferring in the best way that track would ideally enable, might converse to the explanation he had so much trouble writing it.
The primary act, about an hour lengthy and with maybe seven numbers — although it’s exhausting to rely as a result of they weave out and in of the dialogue — introduces us to Ives’s American variations of Buñuel’s French gourmands from “The Discreet Allure of the Bourgeoisie.” Leo Brink (Bobby Cannavale) is a crass tycoon and Marianne Brink (Rachel Bay Jones) a society decorator; their Saturday morning is interrupted when 4 of their circle arrive on the couple’s hyper-sleek house, insisting they’ve been invited for brunch.
The interlopers embody Paul Zimmer (Jeremy Shamos), a plastic surgeon celebrating his 1,000th nostril job, and his spouse, Claudia Bursik-Zimmer (Amber Grey), an agent, she brays, for “a serious leisure entity.” Together with them are Raffael Santello Di Santicci (Steven Pasquale), the horndog ambassador from a Mediterranean nation known as Moranda, and Fritz (Micaela Diamond), Marianne’s bitter youthful sister, a revolutionary with champagne tastes.
Ives shortly and amusingly delineates the six with particular and nearly universally obnoxious traits. Raffael, who butchers his English, and Claudia, fast to drag rank, have a weekly assignation behind Paul’s again; Paul and Leo run a drug cartel with Raffael’s ambassadorial help. Fritz is a tablet. As they go on the street in quest of a meal, accompanied by a Sondheim vamp that begins out marvelously jaunty and ends like water swirling down a drain, every reveals worse and worse traits, apart from Marianne, who is just too dim to be venal. When she asks her husband to “purchase this good day” for her, it appears much less acquisitive than sentimental.
The adjustments of surroundings as they go to numerous institutions that includes outré waiters (Tracie Bennett and Denis O’Hare) in ever extra ludicrous wigs (by Robert Pickens and Katie Gell) are completed with swift grace on David Zinn’s shiny white field of a set, as neon marquees descend from the flies after which descend additional to kind tables or banquettes. (Zinn’s costumes are additionally telegraphic, together with Leo’s velour sweatsuit and Claudia’s sky-high purple Fendis.) The theme-and-variations format is enchanting, permitting Sondheim, the good puzzler, to deal with songs nearly as anagrams. Ultimately, together with three different characters they decide up — a colonel (Francois Battiste), a soldier (Jin Ha) and a bishop (David Hyde Pierce) — the crew lands, by now ravenous, at Raffael’s embassy, the place they dine as Act I ends.
Right here the musical hinges into “The Exterminating Angel,” solely as an alternative of a very completely different set of characters (Buñuel’s had been Spanish, dwelling beneath Franco), Ives, in a neat piece of joinery, continues with Leo and Marianne and the others. It’s they who discover it not possible to go away after dinner, and wind up, in Act II, sleeping, bickering and ultimately preventing over meals scraps as their metaphysical entrapment persists for days. Ives additionally complicates Buñuel’s antifascist, anti-bourgeois glee, by which plutocrats are uncovered as pigs, by implicating the revolution as effectively; Fritz seems to be much less of a menace to her personal lifestyle than she meant.
Intelligent as all that’s, the windup has issues, as is true for a lot of new reveals discovering their remaining form. To make the characters in “Right here We Are” worthy of punishment within the second act has meant making them too clearly terrible within the first. Their brutishness all through additionally lets us off Buñuel’s hook: His motion pictures are about folks whose sophistication and disposable earnings we must always acknowledge, however “Right here We Are,” which generally looks like a butterfly field, is about folks we don’t dare to.
Had Sondheim written extra songs for Act II — there are only a few, bunched in the beginning — that downside might need been eased. In any case, Mantello and Ives determined to reframe the dearth as a possibility. Earlier than his dying, Sondheim apparently agreed with them that the dearth of songs the truth is made structural sense: As soon as trapped in a repeating nightmare of deprivation, these characters would haven’t any cause to sing. However then why retain those he’d already written?
Maybe as a result of the songs he did write are every part you could possibly need them to be. There are fewer trick rhymes than typical, however laugh-out-loud jokes nonetheless. A rhapsodic love track for the soldier and a paean to superficiality for Marianne — “I need issues to gleam./To be what they appear/And never what they’re” — have the acquainted Sondheimian depth and luster to crystallize advanced insights.
Although we sorely miss that in Act II, and particularly on the tried triple lutz of an ending (which might be two lutzes too many), Ives, the creator of “Venus in Fur” and innumerable intelligent comedies, has completed a lot to compensate. A few of his dialogue scenes — together with a riveting colloquy between the questing Marianne and the questioning bishop — have the form, rhythm and sorrowful wit of a Sondheim track. (Jones and Pierce are standouts within the wonderful forged.) Additionally lovingly filling in blanks are the musical supervisor, Alexander Gemignani, and Sondheim’s longtime orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, who’ve organized themes from the sooner a part of the present as instrumental interludes to take up the slack within the later half.
You’ll be able to perceive their care. Pending the invention of some unpublished juvenilia or yet one more iteration of the penultimate “Highway Present,” that is the final Sondheim musical we’ll ever have. That alone makes the manufacturing historic, a stress that fortunately doesn’t present within the product, which is fleet and flashy. Natasha Katz’s lighting, Tom Gibbons’s sound and Sam Pinkleton’s droll choreography do a whole lot of the heavy lifting for Mantello’s agenda.
Right here We Are
By Jan. 21 on the Shed, Manhattan; theshed.org. Working time: 2 hours and 20 minutes.