Pride in songs and humor: Stephen Sondheim's compositions & David Mills' comedy

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday June 4, 2024
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The cast of 'Company' (photo: Matthew Murphy)
The cast of 'Company' (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Does Pride month's endless unfurling of rainbow bright flaggotry strike you as over the top, corporate-co-opted, and maybe just a bit oontz-oontz anti-intellectual?

Take heart. There's no need to sequester in your hidey-hole until the parade passes by. There are prickly entertainments by sophisticated queer creators to be found amidst the shrapnel of June's glitter bomb.

Since Stephen Sondheim's death in 2021, there has been a nationwide boom in productions of work by the great gay lyricist and composer. At one point last year a remarkable three Sondheim musicals were simultaneously running on Broadway: "Sweeney Todd," "Merrily We Roll Along," and "Company," which is now playing at the Orpheum Theatre on a national tour.

The cast of 'Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration' (photo: Reed Flores)  

Even more Sondheim musicals — from "A Little Night Music" to "Anyone Can Whistle" to "Pacific Overtures" — are showcased in "Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration," a new revue that focuses on Sondheim's explorations of the complexity in romantic relationships, which is now on stage at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

A gay man who came of age in a world without public models for same-sex relationships and didn't come out until age 40 himself, Sondheim infused his songs with subtle observations and sentiments about relationship dynamics that were ahead of their time.

Before the mid-20th century, Broadway musicals were primarily light entertainments with disposable scripts and memorable songs. Love and romance were considered appropriately light and breezy subject matter. But Sondheim was a pioneer in bringing psychological depth to the form.

"So many of Sondheim's songs are about the frustrating, disappointing and maddening parts of relationships," said William Liberatore, the musical director of "Being Alive," in a joint Bay Area Reporter interview with director Robert Kelley.

"Thirty years ago when we had a Sondheim show programmed in our season," recalled Kelley, TheatreWorks' founding artistic director, a Sondheim aficionado long before it was fashionable, "we would get letters from subscribers afterward saying 'I don't want to see that material.'

"Well, I don't mean to be rude, but the people who were 60 years old 30 years ago aren't here anymore. And some people who fell in love with the sophistication of Sondheim's music and lyrics when they were in their 30s are now part of the subscriber base.

"Old school musical theater fans had trouble transitioning to the perspectives Sondheim was writing from. I think he gifted musical theater with the possibility of dealing with complicated, contradictory emotions in a way that nobody had thought could be done.

"Sondheim showed us that music theater could be every bit as much about the depth and drama of human experience as O'Neil or Shakespeare."

'Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration,' through June 30. $27-$100. Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. (877) 662-8978.

'Company,' through June 29. $65-$224. Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St. (888) 746-1799.

David Mills  

Comic edge
Comedian David Mills brings suave, soft-spoken vitriol to Martuni's for one night only on June 15 with "Glamour and Despair." He'll be accompanied by old friend and local favorite Russell Deason on the piano.

Mills got his start as an entertainer at Josie's Juice Joint, the late Castro cabaret space in the 1990s, then spent the bulk of the current century in London. The Martuni's show will be his first San Francisco appearance in a decade. (Mills jumped the pond back to New York in 2022, so we'll likely start seeing him somewhat more frequently).

In the UK, Mills honed his performance style — bone-dry, bespoke-suited humor punctuated with musical interpretations in the mode of his muse, Sandra Bernhard — and won considerable acclaim. He's had six shows featured at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, headlined major London comedy venues, and opened for his friends and queer comedy mentors, Margaret Cho and scabrous Marin-based Scott Capurro.

Mills has also been featured in brief but memorable film roles, alongside Meryl Streep in "Francis Foster Jenkins" and Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC's "Patrick Melrose," an adaptation of Edward St. Aubyn's arch gin- and heroin-infused comic novels.

In a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Mills explained that some of the earliest inspiration for his comic style came from the late Paul Lynde.

"Seeing him on 'Hollywood Squares' and variety shows like 'Sonny and Cher,' I loved how sharp and in-the-moment he could be, coming up with a smart remark about any topic that came his way.

"He was haunted by the closet," Mills noted, pointing out that the bitchy, slightly effeminate Lynde performed in an era when no celebrities were publicly out. "I think if he was around today, I'd like to be his friend."

Mills, who grew up Catholic and came out during college, says he finds himself pondering over the experience of many gay teens and young men today.

"What is it like to be gay without ever really living in the closet for an extended period? I'm happy for those who don't have to, but I also think about how different it is from my experience and my peers'.

"There was a danger — which could be thrilling — involved with being gay and with cruising and sex back before PrEP that had a real formative impact on me."

Whether riffing on Pride in the post-millennial era, geopolitics or pop culture, Mills takes a nuanced, multi-layered approach with equal opportunity antagonism for all but the furthest right wingers.

Asked about performing again in San Francisco, where he debuted nearly 30 years ago, Mills said, "I'm just as ambitious as I ever was, but I'm more confident. I've put in the time and worked on my craft over a long time. I'm asking provocative questions about the topics I address on stage, but I know exactly what I'm doing up there."

David Mills' 'Glamour & Despair,' June 15, 7pm. $25. Martuni's, 4 Valencia St. (415) 241-0205.

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