Julia McKenzie: everything’s coming up Sondheim Essay

Published: 2021-07-12 04:20:04
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On paper, Julia McKenzie and Stephen Sondheim couldn’t seem a less likely couple. She’s the archetypal English suburbanite who lists “cooking and gardening” as her hobbies in Who’s Who. He’s the quintessential New York cosmopolite, an overtly brilliant wit and lover of puzzles whose musicals have transformed the American theatre. And yet mutual admiration societies don’t come much stronger. In Britain, McKenzie is without peer as a Sondheim interpreter, having starred in four of his musicals, with a fifth Sweeney Todd due at the National in June. The recent Off-Broadway opening of Putting It Together, running through May 23 at Manhattan Theatre Club, tests her mettle on Sondheim’s home turf for the first time since she brought Side by Side by Sondheim to Broadway in 1977. But this time, McKenzie is offstage, not on, directing none other than Julie Andrews in that toughest of genres a play-as-revue.

One peak to another 
“We’ve been making up words; maybe it’s a revue-sical,” the 52-year-old McKenzie jokes a week into previews, pleased at the progress the show is making. “No one knows what the hell to call it. Let’s just say that people come out believing they’ve seen a play. To me, it’s just whatever it is. It’s certainly not a concert, not a revue, not a musical, not a play.”
At heart, it’s another tribute to Sondheim from an actress-director who has gone from one Sondheim-related peak to another. To be sure, McKenzie has had her share of success elsewhere, ranging from Alan Ayckbourn’s quietly demented Susan in Woman in Mind to the hilarious yet wrenching Miss Adelaide at the heart of Richard Eyre’s 1982 National Theatre production of Guys and Dolls.
But it’s in partnership with Sondheim that she has really soared. In Side by Side, McKenzie avoided the overriding archness, offering a “Broadway Baby” that moved from girlish insouciance to full-throttle bravura. As Sally Plummer in the 1987 London Follies, McKenzie was a haunted musical’s haunted center: a portrait of erotic longing and marital despair hidden behind bright eyes and almost constant good cheer. Inheriting Bernadette Peters’s role as the Witch in Into the Woods (1990), she lent a cohesive morality to an emotionally diffuse show–a performance at once fun and furious, loaded with poignancy and pizzazz.
Surprisingly, McKenzie the singer admires most about Sondheim the demands he makes on McKenzie the actress. “All Steve’s songs are complete acting pieces, so you don’t feel the frustrations of a normal musical. We have in Britain a very great tradition of literature and the theatre, and I think Steve is part of that.”
Somewhere on an emotional line 
McKenzie has little time for any received opinion about the coldness of his material. “I find his stuff tremendously emotional; it triggers off immense feelings for me. The passion in his lyrics is so emotionally put. His people don’t say ‘I love you’ ever straight in a song. Instead, it’s like in ‘Too Many Mornings’ |from Follies~: ‘All that time wasted / merely passing through.’ That to me is an epitome of a relationship; we meet somewhere on an emotional line.”
As she recalls it, McKenzie was approached on the same day to play the Witch in Into the Woods and direct a kind of sequel to Side by Side. Unsurprisingly, she said yes to both, only realizing later that a straightforward Side by Side 2 would be untenable. “I didn’t think we could possibly do another Side by Side with three stools and a narrator,” says the director, who won a Tony nomination for her work on that production. “For Putting It Together, I got the songs I couldn’t leave out, the ones I desperately wanted to use.” A framework of sorts followed: “We have an older couple, seemingly very happy and a younger couple wanting what the older couple have. We put it together like a game of consequences, writing little party sequences to hang it on.”
Andrews with an A 
Putting It Together premiered in early 1992 in Oxford, England, where the cast included Diana Rigg, Clarke Peters (Five Guys Named Moe), and Claire Moore (Miss Saigon). When the lack of a theatre made a West End transfer impossible, McKenzie and producer Cameron Mackintosh instead turned to the Manhattan Theatre Club. The arrival of Julie Andrews altered the event further, adding an event status to what had been an ensemble show. But beyond bringing in “Could I Leave You” from Follies to end the first act (a violation of McKenzie’s early rule that no song from Side by Side could reappear in Putting It Together) the director maintains that Andrews’s presence has made no difference. “It hasn’t distorted the show or weighted it in any way. If you look at the poster, Julie Andrews appears in alphabetical order–it’s not her fault her name starts with A.”
With the show in previews, McKenzie is due back in London to prepare for Sweeney rehearsals under the direction of Declan Donnellan (Angels in America). “It’s the one I’ve been waiting for,” she says of the role of Mrs. Lovett. She’s eager to take on the production without any preconceived notions. “Declan’s such an unusual director that whatever I think will not be what he has in mind; besides, since I’ve directed, I’m awfully good to directors.” But will McKenzie make good on the other Sondheim lead she has so far put off the monstrous Mama Rose in Gypsy? On this point, she gently demurs. “Oh my God, no. It needs an American. I could act it, but I wouldn’t be it.”

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