In 1966, composer Stephen Sondheim collaborated with playwright James Goldman on a musical adaptation of a John Collier short story about a community of outsiders who pose as department-store mannequins by day and follow their own eccentric rules by night. The show, Evening Primrose, aired on the experimental anthology series ABC’s Stage 67, with Anthony Perkins playing a young poet who learns he isn’t the first to have the bright idea of retreating from the real world, while Charmian Carr (a.k.a. Liesl von Trapp in The Sound Of Music) plays a woman who’s been lost in the store since age 6, and pines to go outside. For a long time, Evening Primrose existed primarily as a rumor for Sondheim fans. Its four songs have shown up in Sondheim revues and tributes, and a kinescope of the original broadcast has been available for viewing at The Museum Of Television & Radio, but until The Archive Of American Television and E1 made it available on DVD, Evening Primrose was practically a lost artifact, both of TV and the American theater.
So is Evening Primrose a classic that slipped through the cracks? Not exactly. In the thick booklet that comes with the DVD, Sondheim describes the origin of the project as no more high-minded than two artists trying to make a little money while they worked on what would become Follies. But in that context, it’s remarkable what Sondheim and Goldman accomplished on the quick. Collier’s story is tailor-made for a TV anthology, with its quirky, somewhat spooky scenario, and Goldman gives it seasoning and meaning in the way he defines the structure of this nocturnal society of freeloaders. But clearly Sondheim’s songs are the star attraction. Arriving between his daringly ambitious Anyone Can Whistle and his poppier, more accessible Company, the music for Evening Primrose found Sondheim still in a playful mode—at one point, he incorporates a round of bridge bids into a love song—yet tying his lyrics to the specifics of Perkins and Carr’s feelings. When Carr sings “I Remember,” about what she recalls of the outside, her description of skies “blue as ink” is enough to persuade Perkins to abandon his hermeticism—and enough to make anyone who hears her want to walk out the door and take a deep breath.
Since Evening Primrose, Sondheim’s music has popped up frequently on television, primarily in revue-style specials and recordings of his Broadway shows. Last month, PBS’ Great Performances aired Sondheim! The Birthday Concert, shot this past March at Avery Fisher Hall in honor of the composer’s 80th birthday. While Sondheim watches from the audience, clearly overwhelmed with emotion, a string of old and new Broadway stars sing classics from Company, Sweeney Todd, Sunday In The Park With George, and the like between fleet, funny patter from host David Hyde Pierce. Fans may quibble with the song selection (which is Follies-heavy), and one or two performances fall flat. But for the most part, this is a stirring tribute to a brilliant man, full of nostalgic highs and showstoppers, like original Follies star John McMartin singing the bittersweet “The Road You Didn’t Take” with 40 extra years of empathy. Or dueling Sweeneys George Hearn and Michael Cerveris dueting on “Pretty Women,” Patti LuPone singing “does anyone still wear a hat” in “The Ladies Who Lunch” while a hat-wearing Elaine Strich looks on, Strich rising later to belt out “I’m Still Here,” and the casts from current Broadway hits filling the aisles and the stage to sing “Sunday.” But the sweetest moment in The Birthday Concert is a small one, when Into The Woods stars Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason reunite and sing “It Takes Two.” The whole time, they beam at each other, enjoying being in that exclusive community of actors who’ve been privileged to add a paragraph or two to the Sondheim story.
Key features: An hour of interviews (and that informative booklet) on Evening Primrose; bupkis on The Birthday Concert.