Q&A: Marry Me A Little @ The Barn
Fresh from storming the barricades of Britain’s Got Talent, ROB HOUCHEN (Les Miserables, Light in the Piazza, Candide) joins his castmate CELINDE SCHOENMAKER (Phantom of the Opera, Rocketman, Light in the Piazza) and Musical Director ARLENE MCNAUGHT (Six, Little Miss Sunshine) to talk about a new revival production at the Barn Theatre of Sondheim's Marry Me A Little.
As part of this year’s 2020 Theatre Recovery Season, the Barn has brought together this talented pair, last seen together in The Light in the Piazza (Los Angeles Opera and Royal Festival Hall), to appear in MARRY ME A LITTLE from 16 October to 8 November. Here, they tell us more about the production and why Sondheim and musical theatre lovers have every reason to be excited.
Marry Me a Little is a double-hander revue featuring Sondheim songs pulled together to tell the story of a couple and their tale of love, loneliness and survival. Some might say it is a musical for our times… Have your experiences over the past months informed or affected your interpretation of these roles?
Rob: When I was approached for this, I initially thought because Covid has taken over our entire lives, it will have a Covid take on it: two people stuck in the apartments, they can’t get out etc... But instead, we are not making it about Covid in our piece, because you don’t need to! This is just going to be a totally relatable story about a couple that aren’t together anymore and telling their individual stories. But living through this pandemic has meant we have had hours of conversations about how these times have affected us and our relationships. What makes us happy? And what is important to us now? How do you find that happiness on your own? A lot of that is reflected in this show.
Arlene: I see it from a music perspective and there is so much in this piece about loneliness. And this was written for ‘normal’ times. What do you do on a Saturday night when you are alone? So, the music has been elevated because many of us have been living this for the past seven months now. It is so relevant, but we do not need to flag it – it is just there.
Celinde: For me, it has felt almost therapeutic, as this piece basically reflects what we have all been going through. It connects so easily, as it says so much of what I have wanted to say, what I have gone through.
Arlene, musically, what choices have been made for this production?
It was written for solo piano, but with the voices like Rob and Celinde, the simplicity gives them space to soar. With ‘just’ a piano and two performers, it also works well with the sense of ‘isolation’ and ‘loneliness’. It couldn’t be more different to my work on Six and in the best way! For me to be able to perform Sondheim is a joy in itself. To be able to perform Sondheim – and in a pandemic – I keep asking myself, how did I get this lucky? And then to be working with Rob and Celinde?!
Marry Me a Little is unusual in that it's a piece made up of some well-known Sondheim songs taken out of context, plus some other lesser-known songs that were cut from other shows and put together to create a very different story. How has that affected your approach to a song and your interpretation?
C: A great example was "Marry Me a Little", which has been sung very recently and gloriously in the West End production of Company. I was adamant that we find a way of interpreting this song that works for this piece and is true to us. There are so many ways we could have sung this but I feel we have done well and made it our own. In fact, now I have almost forgotten how it was sung before.
R: I will admit I did not know some of these songs as they were cut from shows, so I was able to come in with a fresh eye and ear and thought, well this is our version now. A song like "Happily Ever After" was cut to make way for "Being Alive", one of Sondheim’s most famous songs – and actually this song is pretty damn good – so I am going to sing my version. And it’s also pretty cool to be able to introduce a lesser known Sondheim too, to our audience who may not know it.
C: I think that also demonstrates the power of Sondheim. You can take a song out of context, put it in a different show, and each time it will and can work. They work so beautifully within this show and yet could stand alone in a concert setting too, because of the strength of his storytelling.
Speaking of Sondheim: What is about Sondheim that makes people want to do his work? And do you have a dream role?
C: With Sondheim, each song is a perfect monologue, with its own perfect underscore. It is so good that almost without effort, the words and meaning roll off the tongue.
R: For me, he is the Chateaubriand of acting through song and storytelling! When I was training, I would always do "Finishing the Hat" when trying to demonstrate this. There is no better material.
A: I love that you can never close the book on a Sondheim. There is always something more to say and that it is revealed in its relevance to your life and your experiences.
C: I would love to be the Witch from Into The Woods.
R: Mine would be to play George in Sunday in the Park with George.
Producers take note! Have there been any changes to this show, compared to the two current cast recordings available for Marry Me A Little?
R: We have "asked", obviously, but we've taken songs from both to create our own set list.
C: And we've made them work for our story.
And what other choices have been made with the production?
R: We have definitely brought it into today – with the set and some tech that is relevant – but nothing that detracts from the story.
C: When talking about this, we wanted people that come to see this to be able to recognise themselves and connect with us, as we learn about ourselves and relationships.
R: There is even a little choreo. Though it’s not 42nd Street…[laughs]
How has it been rehearsing in this unusual time?
R: Technically, Celinde and I (and our partners) are in our own "bubble". We're tested regularly and our temperatures taken every day. Because it's a small cast, we can maintain social distancing from Arlene and our director, Kirk Jameson.
C: I've been feeling a bit emotional during rehearsal. Realising how amazing it is that we even get to do this right now and how much it fills our hearts to be working together. Hopefully, the audience will feel this too – just how important live theatre is and how special. For me, it’s a win-win–win situation. We all want to do it, we all want to see it, we all want to be part of it. And after this horrible year, it feels so good to be able to do this and perform in front of an audience.
Finally, why should we come and see your production of Marry Me A Little?
R: Part of going to theatre is escapism. Here, for just an hour, you can immerse yourselves in this couple’s narrative and world and, especially after this past 7 months, relate to the moments of clarity about yourself and relationships reflected in this show.
C: And all of this underscored by Sondheim and played by Arlene. What more could one ask?!
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Interview by Tina Foote of The Stephen Sondheim Society; first published by Musical Theatre Review.