HERE WE ARE; There They Go — Review
Though the American movie critic Roger Ebert famously called film “the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts,” it is still a medium in which things happened, and happened somewhere else. Last year’s Palme d’Or-winning class satire from Swedish director Ruben Östlund, Triangle of Sadness, had its millionaire protagonists suffer all sorts of tragedies and excitedly played them for laughs, empathy replaced with retribution. But then praxis, satire, and surrealism are the great generic disruptors, perhaps the exceptions that prove Ebert’s rule.
Luis Buñuel, the Spanish artist whose avant-garde work helped pioneer the Surrealist movement, set the template for that film with two of his own: 1962’s The Exterminating Angel, a pitch-black parable of Francoist Spain where the guests of a lavish dinner party find themselves inexplicably unable to leave; and 1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a lighter jab presenting a series of farcical interruptions which prevent a wealthy friend group from dining together. Both are scathing critiques of the upper classes and, like Dante’s Inferno, use surrealism as a way of wringing them through inventive, punishing analyses.
Now, legend of American musical theatre — that most American form — Stephen Sondheim has his final work produced as Here We Are, a clever combination of the two Buñuel films on which he had been working with book writer David Ives for over a decade before the composer-lyricist’s death in 2021. Questions over whether he considered the material complete, or ready for public consumption, linger irresolutely. That its highly commercial presentation is at the Shed in Hudson Yards, itself a tone-deaf monument to “private interests triumphing over the needs of the public,” doesn’t ease the queasiness.
But that our tears have yet to fully dry after his passing should not blur our vision–both in how we approach the material, and in our ability to see it. To have one’s years overlap with Sondheim’s will one day have the same cachet as having lived in Vienna during Mozart’s time, and just as we pore over that composer’s private letters, so might History forgive our prying.
It is a good thing that this production of a work whose temporality exists squarely in the present—its first act, based on Charm, is as much about futures prevented as its second, modeled after Angel, deals with pasts unescaped; and vice versa—is offered to us as a gift.
Joe Mantello’s direction is superb; David Zinn’s scenic and costume design, even with a sumptuous budget that could court comfort, feels innovative; Natasha Katz’s lighting is sharp; and Sam Pinkleton’s choreography, if a little hesitant to depart from Sondheim’s mid-century aesthetics, suits the material. Its excellent ensemble is unbelievably well-cast, and receive terrific musical help from Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations and Alexander Gemignani’s additional, fill-in-the-blanks arrangements.
But the score is patently unfinished, and its incompletion leaves a yawning gap in the overall piece. In many respects, though, its incompleteness is secondary to its impossibility: it is unlikely that an adaptation of these two films (which happened there) into musical theatre (which is here, in the room with us) could have ever worked, as its radical ambitions are, if not incompatible, at fatal odds with the sentimental form.
The first act is where we pick up our unlovable cast of ultra-rich rogues. Leo (Bobby Cannavale) and Marianne (Rachel Bay Jones) Brink wake up one morning in their Damien Hirst-adorned high-rise apartment to unwittingly receive their inner circle: her pseudo-communist sister Fritz (Micaela Diamond), Hollywood mogul Claudia (Amber Gray), her plastic surgeon husband Paul (Jeremy Shamos), and the smarmy “Morandan” ambassador Raffael (Steven Pasquale). Someone—they can’t remember who—suggested brunch plans at their home and, today being the cook’s day off, Leo offers to take them out.
They embark on a picaresque jaunt through a few restaurants, none of which are able to serve them for increasingly ridiculous, and lightly sinister, reasons. Like comedy sketches, these visits give Ives chances to crack rather juvenile jokes at the expense of, well, any number of “modern” ideals. The menu at Café Everything is as anonymously globalized as a Cheesecake Factory, yet has nothing in stock; a bistro is so trendy that items go out of style before you can order them; an overzealous waiter takes drastic measures after he fails on the job.
Spaces miraculously open for them and, as they flit about, they are serviced by an array of workers played with top-tier clownishness by Denis O’Hare and Tracie Bennett, both of whose gumption and commitment charge the play with a classical, necessary sense of farce. Under different guises, these two follow the party — which now includes the jingoistic Colonel Martin (Francois Battiste), his sweet-faced Lieutenant (Jin Ha), and an out of work bishop (David Hyde Pierce) — into the room at Raffael’s embassy in which they become trapped.
The staging of this entrapment, which closes act one, is romantic and stunning. Its poetry translates into the hypnotic pacing of the second act, which, aside from a few sung moments strewn throughout, is almost completely devoid of lyrics. But while that quietude is a nice balm, especially if it means getting to luxuriate in Zinn’s spectacular gilded cage, it seeps into the characters, whose bickering amounts to very little, and whose confusion at their situation is poorly mined. It lets all the air out of the critique, and Sondheim’s work is sorely missed.
It was bound to happen. The logical endpoint of the first act’s odious characters is a gruesome comeuppance, while the second calls for repentance. Ives gives each character a sort of “what I learned” recap, but the emotions summarized have not been previously displayed. They could have, as the type of insightful beats musicals convey through song. Mantello apparently advised Sondheim that the second act’s lack of music is dramaturgically correct, but this production leaves glaring blanks which Ives might have stepped up to fill.
So there we are. It would be unfair to dump the production’s problems on Ives, who likely wanted to stay out of Sondheim’s way so what work he did finish–or did he?–could remain the show’s centerpiece.
The score mainly sits somewhere between the plunky percussiveness of Company and Sunday in the Park with George’s chattier moments. It’s pure Sondheim, but easy to see how he might have felt he’d written his way into a thematic corner. The compositions which feel borrowed from those two shows were there used to critique the haughtiness of cosmopolitan dilettantism before a passionate protagonist punctuated them with a unique melody. As with Merrily We Roll Along’s “Blob” of Hollywood hangers-on, one can only take so much musicalized side-mouthing before begging for release.
And yet, of course, release is the thing righteously withheld from these characters, all of whom are detestable by design. It all, as Mantello pronounced, tracks, but it seldom makes for a satisfying theatrical experience. On film, this bunch could meet an absurdly fiery end to cheers from a distance; approval from a logical place. On stage, a certain kinship develops, and the audience, against their own interests, begins to care for the bodies in front of them.
Buñuel’s characters, however, demand there be no one to truly root for, and the demise required by this setup would be too nihilistic, even for a Sondheim musical. Sweeney Todd might be as damned by bloodlust as the rest of them, but at least his is an arc worth rooting for. Sondheim’s work is renowned for its extraordinary compassion and shamanic insight into human nature but here, it lacks most of that warmth, save for a tender conversation between Marianne and the bishop about the meaning of being.
By virtue of being the group’s youthful and mostly conscientious member, Fritz is also allowed some empathy, but is also perhaps the one most targeted by Ives. It’s tough to imagine Sondheim, the writer of a razor-sharp, still relevant indictment of middle class frivolity like “The Ladies Who Lunch” signing off on Ives aiming his pen so crassly at her ordering a “decaf soymilk latte mocchaniño,” like a mid-2000s standup. But Sondheim’s lyrics in the first act don’t point towards an interest–or a completed one, anyway—toward a chance to comprehend anyone’s interiority, making what work of his is here appear a psychological failure.
The show’s insistence on taking Fritz down is troubling. In succeeding at critiquing her armchair anticapitalism, it defangs the one character whose politics (at least in name) match those of Buñuel, turning two works of anti-establishment radicalism into both-sidesist mush. It points to the production’s uneasy relationship to the originals’ politics, with the musical selectively applying the films’ cynicism only to level the credibility of its sole ideologue. The result is an unfortunately Orphic, Boomer misremembrance of ideals from a Lost Generation who, unsoothed by comforting social advances, could still go for broke demanding change through, and within, art.
Where Here We Are lands is at the well-trod juncture of European versus American artistic dogma. Piling alongside Buñuel, Östlund, and Dante the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár: his own Liliom lost a fair amount of bite in Carousel, its translation to the Broadway stage by Richard Rodgers and Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II. In making its violent carnival barker’s soul redeemable, the story becomes a beautiful musical with relatable characters rather than a detached fable of human folly.
It is showmanship’s need for a recognizable comfort versus a purer satirical form that’s clear-eyed in its aims and cold in its execution. The two clash in Here We Are and, while the attempt is not without merit, its achievements can only be considered such with a healthy dose of prefab admiration.
Sondheim’s failure is immediately made a noble artistic quest by our being able to witness it, rather than another scrapped notebook in an artist’s decadeslong pile, which one might have seen during his lifetime and thought correctly against publishing, “Mm, this does not work—but nice try.” Yet therein lies the true tension, pathos, and consequence of Here We Are and, ultimately, the genius of Sondheim himself, who knew that to be one is to stand on the shoulders of others. There that musical can remain; here we are, discussing Buñuel, surrealism, and class warfare.
Here We Are is in performance through January 21, 2024 at the Shed on West 30th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.