I’m inclined to go anywhere to hear a salute to Stephen Sondheim, so when Diane told me that one of her colleagues in the cast of 33 Variations would be singing in such an evening, I was more than game. Then I consulted a map. The event was in a place called Cerritos, which required negotiating the pretzel of freeways that lead, if that is the word, southeast out of Los Angeles. A helpful woman at the city’s visitor’s center looked dubious.
What time do you plan to leave? she asked.
Around 4:30, after my wife’s rehearsal is over.
In that rush hour traffic it could take an hour and a half, she said, forcing a smile. Google Maps confirmed this estimate.
We pulled out of the garage downtown on schedule, Diane at the wheel, I beside her as chief navigator. Our rented car had no GPS chaperon, but we had three maps, written directions, and the Google printout. Clearly, we needed a sextant, too, for we immediately made a wrong turn in our search for the on ramp to IS110 south. When we finally found it, we joined a crawl that lived up to all predictions, and convinced me that we should disentangle at the next exit and go back to our apartment, where Merrily We Roll Along and much other Sondheim awaited on my iTouch.
Suddenly, to my astonishment, we ourselves were rolling along, almost merrily thanks to a designated car pool lane, el camino real of the freeways. Seldom has our marriage seemed so practical, as we two shot by the coagulation on our right flank, ranks of solitary motorists creeping along, doomed to drive-time radio but discouraged from cheating into our free flowing speedway by periodic signs advising that doing so would cost them $341 should the California highway patrol notice. After a smooth transition to IS91 east, we arrived in Cerritos. Elapsed time: one hour and five minutes, not bad for neophyte participants in the matchless car culture of Southern California.
A central truth about Los Angeles and environs is that no matter in what direction you drive, you frequently start in or near a shopping center and wind up in or near a shopping center, both with the same or similar shops and box stores, and parking areas the size of Lake Tahoe. We alighted in just such a place, idled a bit at Borders, then took the gastronomic advice of a friendly salesman at the AT&T store and sat down in an embracing booth at Wood Ranch, where we shared a dinner of barbecued pulled pork, cole slaw, asparagus, sweet potato fries, macaroni and cheese and salad, all of it as tasty as it was immoderate.
The nearby Cerritos Performing Arts Center proved a comfortable modern venue, with excellent sight lines and ample leg room between the rows, a rarity at a Sondheim musical, or any other production, on Broadway. The program, however, gave me a jolt. Only four songs were listed: “Send in the Clowns,” from A Little Night Music; “Finishing the Hat,” from Sunday in the Park With George; “Too Many Mornings,” from Follies, and “Getting Married Today,” from Company. The rest, it turned out, would be talk–with no intermission. For this we had taken on the challenge of IS110 and IS91?
The talker was Rob Kapilow, who was new to me but should not have been, since What Makes It Great?, his illuminations of classical music, has attracted a wide audience on NPR, PBS and in lectures for two decades. He bounded on stage, sat down at the piano, turned toward us and, with a staccato delivery that rivaled the tongue-twisting “Getting Married” and arms waving like out-of-control exclamation points, told us that Sondheim was one of a kind, legendary, likely the greatest musical theater composer who ever lived. Since I’ve shared this view for at least the last thirty years, I perked up.
Kapilow quickly introduced the soprano for the evening, Sally Wilfert, and together they deconstructed “Send in the Clowns,” using Sondheim’s biggest hit to demonstrate the difference between song writers like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers, whose superlative gifts were for creating melodies whole, and Sondheim, who builds structures of musical insight and emotional beauty the way Bach and Beethoven did, on deceptively simple motives, e.g., the four notes that begin this ballad: Isn’t it rich . . . . "Send in the Clowns" is a song about missed opportunities, and Kapilow lucidly explained how Sondheim captured this moment of disappointed love with unexpected notes in the melody line and bittersweet dissonances in the chords underneath.
He next brought out Michael Winther, Diane’s colleague, and a singer, like Wilfert, comfortably at home with the Broadway songbook. He and our teacher ably dissected “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim’s telling portrait of the artist Georges Seurat as a conflicted man, a painter who chooses his canvas over the woman he loves. As with “Send in the Clowns,” the song shows Sondheim’s remarkable ability to capture the often painful ambivalence and ambiguity at the center of life. He is a master, Kapilow said, quoting Auden, of “clear thinking about mixed feelings.”
All this and the rest of the evening could have been numbing musicology, but Kapilow’s enthusiastic and often witty instruction captured the audience of hundreds from the start. After each exploration, the singers stepped into the spotlight and delivered the song uninterrupted. When they finished there were tears in many eyes as the hall resounded with applause, as it did for Kapilow at the end.
The drive back to our temporary home–this time on IS91 west, IS605 north, IS5 north and 101 north– took about forty minutes and was uneventful, save for the lingering glow of an unanticipated musical treat in Cerritos, California.