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Wind back a few years to a TV interview with Frank and his lyric-writing partner Charley, in which Charley's rage and frustration at Frank's selling out boils over in an outburst of astonishing bitterness. He humiliates both himself and Frank, live on air, and Frank orders him out of his life.
And so, as a large video screen at the top of the set keeps us abreast of the major news stories of the day -- Nixon, Vietnam, the Moon landing -- we progress back through the years, through Frank's affair with Gussie; his disagreement with Charley over plans for a film version of their show 'Musical Husbands'; and his divorce from Beth (Act 1 ends with Mary, Charley and Frank's associates rallying round him outside the courthouse, and Mary's savage number 'Now you know' -- Company gone sour).
'Musical Husbands' is a hit at its first performance. In a small cabaret club Frank, Charley and Beth perform their satirical number 'Bobby and Jackie and Jack' in honour of the newly-elected John Kennedy (the two-guys-and-a-girl song and dance routine suggesting a nod in the direction of Singin' In the Rain), followed by Frank and Beth's on-stage wedding. We see the youthful optimism of Frank and Charley's early collaboration, and Mary, just a phone call away, working equally enthusiastically on her book. Gussie's producer husband Joe Josephson urges Frank and Charley to write more hummable songs (Sondheim surely having a dig at some of his critics). They audition and hire a fresh-eyed country girl called Beth. Finally we see Frank and Charley, in 1957, watching for Sputnik from the rooftop of their apartment block, meeting their new neighbour, Mary, and the three of them full of the whole new world of exciting possibilities ahead of them.
As so often with Sondheim, the show doesn't reveal all its hand there and then. He has an uncanny knack of inducing a delayed reaction, in which the full emotional impact only becomes clear as you think about it afterwards.
Copyright © 23 April 2007
Mike Wheeler, Derby UK