Those who feel that musical theatre's greatest moments occur when old and new clash head on won't want to miss 4th Interval's productions of two short musicals currently providing the theatrical equivalent of nuclear fusion.
Both The Diary of Adam and Eve (by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick) and Marry Me a Little (with songs by Stephen Sondheim, conceived and developed into a show by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene) are standalone productions playing at the 45th Street Theatre. They share two common cast members, a few set pieces, and a creative team (their musical director is Joshua Clayton), but little else. What makes these shows - especially when seen together, though they may be viewed separately - uniquely affecting is the shocking juxtaposition between Old and New Broadway.
Of course, few would consider The Diary of Adam and Eve - originally the first act of the 1966 musical The Apple Tree - in any way Old Broadway. Certainly, the show's superimposing the modern battle of the sexes - complete with all the joys and pains, both complex and simple - onto one of history's most famous stories is an idea of shimmeringly contemporary audacity. The language of the first man (J. Brandon Savage) and the first woman (Lauren Gruet) is modern, and their feelings are defined with a precision more befitting the age of psychoanalysis than the Book of Genesis.
Still, the two are discovering the world - and everything in it - for the first time; this imbues the work with a simplicity so beguiling and so heartfelt that, even in a modest production like this one, the story's charms ring through with crystalline clarity. The performers' optimistic youthfulness only enhances the work's latent appeal, resulting in a show both epic and intimate, a full, moving lifetime of story told in under an hour. It's the type of show filled with songs given away entirely by their titles (such as "Beautiful, Beautiful World," "Feelings," and "Friends"), but that so acutely deliver on primal and explorative human emotions they, like the rest of the show, are irresistible.
This innocent liveliness stands in stark contrast to Marry Me a Little, simultaneously an ironic counterpoint to the Adam and Eve saga and a corruption of it. Gruet and Savage now appear as two single city dwellers, incapable of finding anything better to do on a Saturday night than sitting around in their apartments (in the same apartment building) and singing Sondheim songs to themselves. They're alienated from the social whirl of the city around them much as Adam and Eve were after tasting of the Forbidden Fruit.
Yet this is all inference on the part of Lucas, Rene, and director Michael Klimzak; Marry Me a Little can mean as much or as little as you like because it has no real meaning. The show, originally produced in 1981, is composed entirely of lesser-known Sondheim songs, also-rans or never-quite-weres, many of which were cast-offs, from Follies ("Can That Boy Foxtrot," "All Things Bright and Beautiful"), A Little Night Music ("Bang!," "Silly People"), Company ("Marry Me a Little," "Happily Ever After"), and so on. Why would these two young people be singing these songs? The answer's easy: they wouldn't.
Sondheim is revered because of his status as a preeminent musical dramatist who weds songs so tightly their surroundings - whether book, direction, or even sets and costumes - that the elements defy separation. But in Marry Me a Little discordant moments abound - reasons just cannot be found for, say, Savage singing the original 11 o'clock number for Follies's Phyllis, "Uptown, Downtown." No characterizations can occur, no dramatic momentum can be achieved. At least Savage and Gruet are game, wrapping their voices and personalities around the songs with even more gusto than they do the Bock and Harnick tunes, but they can't successfully sell these songs. There's just nothing to sell.
The reason is a straightforward one, but one that requires constant repeating in the age of Mamma Mia!, David Henry Hwang's Flower Drum Song, and other blood enemies of the integrated musical: Well-composed theatrical songs removed from their dramatic situations simply will not make sense. To take in The Diary of Adam and Eve in the same evening as Marry Me a Little is to receive an object lesson in the value of writing - as opposed to assembly - that every Broadway director, composer, and many audience members would do well to consider.
Gruet and Savage are both attractive and energetic, injecting plenty of life into both shows, and they're joined in The Diary of Adam and Eve by a delightfully campy Sol Baird as the Snake. Klimzak's staging for the two shows is incisive, direct, and honest - just right. The sets (Christine Peters), costumes (Philip Heckman), and lights (Aaron David Blank) are engaging examples of spendthrift craft that do exactly what they should: enhance the shows while not calling attention to themselves.
This allows you to focus your energy fully on the shows, but only The Diary of Adam and Eve pays dividends; that's because it's chock full of characters, conflict, and solid craftsmanship. Marry Me a Little is more enjoyable for the opportunity to hear fine interpretations of second-drawer Sondheim than for anything that actually happens; musicals these days certainly can thrive on far less.
But The Diary of Adam and Eve calls attention to the days when musicals not only required but delivered more. Basking in the rapture of this show, which was but one third of a relatively minor 1960s title, might seem a strange way to spend an hour, but as delivered by 4th Interval, it's one of the more captivating theatrical experiences of recent memory. They're reminding us - at a time when such reminders can never be heard too frequently - of what true musical theatre can really be.