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So Many Sondheim Songs, But Just One Character

Date: Sep 24, 2012


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Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles

When Jason Tam sings "Ah, But Underneath" in Marry Me a Little, he takes out an engagement ring box, and suddenly the audience has a better understanding of his character, who is only referred to in the program as "Him."

The prop is just as informative for the actors. Marry Me Little is a Keen Company revival of a 1980 Stephen Sondheim revue, which means that Tam and his co-star Lauren Molina are singing songs originally written for different characters. However, they're trying to create cohesive performances in the here and now, so even something as simple as an engagement ring can become a valuable hook to hang a performance on.

"It was great to have that engagement ring because that could be the catalyst that caused him to have that fear of commitment and that dismissal of relationships of substance, because in the past he had tried to have that and was very burned," Tam says. He adds that the ring only recently came into play. "Him" started as a suspender-wearing artsy hipster, but now he evolves from a seemingly happy bachelor into a man who can't hide his loneliness.

The rest of the creative team has added context to the show as well. Director Jonathan Silverstein has worked with Sondheim and Craig Lucas (who helped create the original version of the revue) to update the song order and give the show a more modern feel. Lauren Molina's character, Her, now lives above Him in a Brooklyn apartment building, and their story unfolds on a lonely Saturday night. Tweaks have been made to highlight the actors' strengths, like Lauren Molina's skills at playing the cello. (You might remember her playing it in Doyle's innovative Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd in 2005.)

"We really had to create these characters from scratch and figure out our backstories very specifically so that these songs that come from different shows have a throughline in our world," says Molina. Tam adds, "You have to have a thought process and an intention that leads you to choose these very specific words that were written for a completely different set of circumstances. So it was really tough, but all that much more rewarding when you figure it out, when you put all the pieces together."

Some pieces have been especially vexing. For example, in "All Things Bright and Beautiful," Molina sings, "Ben, can we go to Paris? Ben, can we go to London?"

But who is Ben? Originally, he was a character in Follies, the musical from which the song was cut, but that doesn't matter now. In the rehearsal room, Molina and Silverstein played with a variety of ideas. During the show, Her decorates her apartment, cutting out pictures from magazines for a bulletin board, so they wondered if she could be obsessed with Ben Affleck. Then they tried to think of <i>other</i> famous Bens she could be hanging on the walls. At the moment, Molina is delivering that line to the memory of an ex-boyfriend, but Sondheim is in the process of changing it to better fit the story.

Meanwhile, Stephen C. Kemp's set is also guiding the actors' choices. Molina and Tam are both on stage for the entire show, sharing one set that represents both apartments. "When Jason is singing a song, I have to live in my apartment, but yet things I do are reflective of his lyrics sometimes or of his behavior and attitude, and so that also helps create our characters indirectly," Molina says.

Tam adds, "At first, we had a set of those rehearsal cubes that you have in rehearsal rooms, and we had four of those set up to be our bed, but it doesn't even compare to having an actual bed, because then you can behave the way you actually do at home by yourself. It helps you invest yourself fully into this world of being home alone."


Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci. She contributes to StageGrade and the theatre blog Pataphysical Science.

Photo by Carol Rosegg