I know it’s purely coincidental, but it feels fortuitous that there have been so many revivals of Stephen Sondheim musicals in Chicago in the wake of Alain Resnais’s death. Resnais was an outspoken fan of Sondheim’s—he recruited the groundbreaking Broadway composer to write the score for Stavisky… (1974), and it’s presumed that he cast Elaine Stritch in Providence (1978) on the basis of seeing her in Sondheim’s Company when he lived in New York in the early 1970s. (It’s also worth noting that Sondheim would go on to write original songs for Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, which Resnais—who cited Chester Gould’s comic strip as a lifelong source of inspiration—was briefly considered to direct.) One can detect a notable Sondheim influence on Life Is a Bed of Roses (1983), screening in Doc Films’s Resnais retrospective this Thursday at 7 PM, in its musical interludes and theatrical mise-en-scene. The film’s intricate plot, which alternates between three fanciful stories set in the same castle at different times, suggests a narrative equivalent to Sondheim’s use of counterpoint and anticipates the time-shifting structure of his Sunday in the Park With George.
Bed of Roses failed to gain much of a following here upon first release. Writing in the Reader, Dave Kehr complained it was “hard to recognize here the director of Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad: the material manages at once to be both precious and dry, the staging unprofitably claustrophobic, and the structure less ingenious than arbitrary.” In hindsight the film seems a crucial turning point in Resnais’s filmography, setting the stage (pun intended) for the magisterial theatrical adaptations that defined the last 30 years of his career.
“In [Resnais’s] hands, the conflict between cinematic realism and theatrical artifice became a metaphor for the competing roles of chance and predetermination in shaping human lives,” Kehr wrote in his recent New York Times obituary. Sondheim musicals often rest on a similar conflict, employing elaborate song structures to address messy emotional states. As in Resnais’s films, Sondheim’s songs achieve a special poignancy when the content threatens to break through the form. I think specifically of “That Was a Year” from Road Show (playing at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre through May 4), wherein various characters sing about the great fun they had with shady venture capitalist Wilson Mizner before their plans went belly up. Sondheim’s lyrics interweave sentiments of nostalgia and regret—and the music, however upbeat, never reconciles the conflict between the two.
The current productions of both Road Show and Passion (which Theo Ubique is performing at No Exit Cafe through April 27) are intimate affairs, with the scores played by ensembles of no more than four musicians. As a relative novice to Sondheim, I greatly valued this approach. These small ensembles can deliver little more than the melody and countermelody of any given song—yet this makes it easier to appreciate the intricacy of Sondheim’s composition, since there are no frills to distract from the core interrelationship between melodic lines. This intricacy is literary as well as musical—Sondheim’s gift for wordplay is well known, but I’m more impressed by the uniformity of his literary voice. As in the plays of Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard, all of Sondheim’s characters speak more or less the same, and this imbues the musicals with a certain impenetrability, as though they were playing out inside Sondheim’s brain (this isn’t too far removed from “unprofitable claustrophobia” of Bed of Roses).
In this attribute I sense the strongest affinity between Sondheim and Resnais, whose movies convey a similar interiority. Resnais’s breakthroughs in film editing, of course, derived from an effort to visualize the nature of thought. The current productions of Road Show and Passion demonstrate how another artist arrived at similar breakthroughs by way of a very different path.