‘Here We Are’ Off Broadway Review: Stephen Sondheim Relishes Then Abandons Luis Buñuel

In a rendezvous negotiated by playwright David Ives, two legendary artists create both a wonderful hit and a curious miss

"Here We Are" (Credit: Emilio Madrid)

Early in his Broadway career, after he wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” and before he wrote the score for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” Stephen Sondheim wrote incidental music for Arthur Laurents’s play “Invitation to a March,” in 1960. Curiously, Sondheim ends his career in the theater writing incidental music for the second act of his and David Ives’s new show, “Here We Are,” which opened Sunday at The Shed.

It is extremely good incidental music, and more important, Ives has delivered a book that’s a vast improvement on many texts Sondheim chose to set to song. Over the years, a lot of tinkering has been done to get the books for “Company,” “Follies” and “Merrily We Roll Along” into the kind of shape that would win critical raves for those shows’ most recent Broadway revivals. “Here We Are” ingeniously melds together two classic films by Luis Buñuel, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “The Exterminating Angel.” As Ives tells it, the characters on the run in search of a meal in “Discreet Charm” end up in “Here We Are” being the same characters that, after gorging themselves at a sumptuous banquet, can’t leave their host’s drawing room in “Exterminating Angel.” Ives has introduced the movies’ least sentimental filmmaker to Broadway’s most acerbic composer.

Sondheim, who passed away two years ago, clearly relished setting “Discreet Charm” to song. This first act can best be described as his “North by Northwest,” that is, a dizzyingly joyous and very fond send-up of some of the master composer’s most wonderful moments. Like Alfred Hitchcock before him, Sondheim was never up to his own standard. His best effort was always the one that came before his latest show, which you were now watching. In the case of Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” the 1959 movie is no “Vertigo” or “Notorious,” but is worth more than just an occasional look. “Here We Are” is no “Sweeney Todd” or “Pacific Overtures,” but its utterly captivating first act is very much Sondheim having great fun on a holiday.

Bunuel aficionados may be horrified to learn that the starving diners in the first act of “Here We Are” are treated to a singing waiter who impersonates Edith Piaf (Tracie Bennett stops the show), and the trapped guests in the second act engage in a game of charades to help them while away the hours. “Here We Are” may be playing at an Off Broadway venue, but it is very much the brassier stuff of Broadway.

The critic Walter Kerr once referred to a good Broadway musical as a well-designed machine. Under the expert direction of Joe Mantello, the first act of “Here We Are” spins along like a tightly wound music box. David Zinn’s sleek scenic design is just that, and Mantello has plunked his ensemble of talented actors into that glittering box and directed them to be a network of gem-studded gears that shoot off comic sparks whenever they bump against each other, which they do nonstop. The infectious fun on stage here is enough to forgive this director for introducing the caterwauling female-empowerment anthem (“Defying Gravity”) to the musical stage. Most of the “Here We Are” actors are not trained dancers, but Sam Pinkleton’s clever choreography keeps them on their toes to further enhance the intricate coordination of Mantello’s tuneful clockwork concept.

One of the real pleasures of this production is deciphering which well-known actor’s name in the credits corresponds to which character on stage. Zinn’s costumes and Robert Pickens and Katie Gell’s hair and makeup make it nearly impossible to know who’s playing the boorish tycoon (Bobby Cannavale), the LGBTQ revolutionary (Micaela Diamond), the lords of the drug cartel (Steven Pasquale and Jeremy Shamos), the housewives of Park Avenue (Amber Gray and Rachel Bay Jones), and a revolving door of servers and servants (Denis O’Hare). Only David Hyde Pierce is very much David Hyde Pierce in his role of the bishop, who makes a delightfully late-in-the-act entrance to fondle one of the housewife’s Jimmy Choos. This superb cast  is rounded out with Francois Battiste’s blustering general, Jin Ha’s beautifully sung soldier, and the aforementioned Bennett, who matches O’Hare’s string of servers and servants laugh for laugh. They make you forget their Bunuel counterparts on screen and instead embrace an elegant buffoonery at its razzle-dazzle best.

The songs Sondheim has given this cast of chameleons are, well, very Sondheim. Hearing them is a walk down memory lane with lots of enchanting new scenery to experience along the way, and what’s wrong with that?

Sondheim reprises one of those songs at the top of act two, the “Exterminating Angel” part of the show, and immediately follows it with a new one that’s a witty ode to materialism and everything that’s wonderfully superficial in life, from the feel of a fine rug under your toes to the classy look of a bookcase of classics that nobody has read. After that, the singing in “Here We Are” abruptly, and just as mysteriously, stops.

The dearth of songs is an odd choice on the part of Sondheim and Ives, and that is the best way to describe the second act of “Here We Are.” It is a curiosity. Major characters in the musical theater who don’t sing are rare, but occasionally they pop up. For example, in “The Magic Flute,” Mozart has the male lead Tamino go mute for most of the second act. In the “Exterminating Angel” section of “Here We Are,” the sated partygoers don’t sing their way downward into squalor and uncivility. Rather, a series of musical interludes signal that decline, a spiral to the bottom that finds Mantello floundering to create any arresting tableaux. These actors who have been so carefully choreographed in act one now appear simply to flay against one another without much thought or design. Will a revival of this show someday make sense of why the singing stops and the piano goes mute (and horror of horrors, everybody’s cell phones ceases to function)? Who knows? If “Merrily We Roll Along” can be turned into a big hit forty years after its disastrous premiere, anything is possible.

Until then, it might be best to pair the “Discreet Charm” section of “Here We Are” with “Gianni Schicchi.” In this case, the Sondheim is every bit as delightful as the Puccini.


One response to “‘Here We Are’ Off Broadway Review: Stephen Sondheim Relishes Then Abandons Luis Buñuel”

  1. Faizan Avatar

    Early in his Broadway career, after he wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” and before he wrote the score for “A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum,” Stephen Sondheim wrote incidental music for Arthur Laurents’s play “Invitation to a March,” in 1960.

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