New York Arts / Theater

Our Time, a Collage of Records from Williams, a 90th Birthday Tribute to Stephen Sondheim (’50) at Williams College – a Review

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Our Time, a Collage of Records from Williams: Opening Scene. Photo Brad Wakoff.
Our Time, a Collage of Records from Williams: Opening Scene. Photo Brad Wakoff.

Williams Theatre Department & Sondheim@90@Williams present:

Our Time, a Collage of Records from Williams
documenting Williams College between 1946-1950
devised by Omar Sangare and Ilya Khodosh
records chosen, interpreted and developed by the cast
video appearance by Stephen Sondheim

Cast: Chinonso Anokwute, Stephen Kletscher, Justin Kugel, Michael Medvedev, Ivana Mensah-Agyekum, Jules Öberg, True Pham, Aagat Sapkota, Coleston Smith, Alexander Szrol, Peter Tamasi, William Titus, Andrea Treviño, Tristan Whalen

Scenic Designer: David Gürçay-Morris
Lighting Designer: Coby Chasman-Beck
Costume Designer: Barbara Bell
Sound Designer: Stephen Simalchik
Props Master: Katie Polebaum
Production Manager: Ann Marie Dorr
Production Stage Manager: Nicolle Mac Williams
Assistant Stage Manager: Tristan Whalen
Assistant Lighting Designer: Erin Meadors
Assistant Sound Designer: Brandon Hilfer
Assistant Costume Designer: Lucia Sher
Assistant Costume Shop Mgr: Samantha Patterson
Sound and Media Manager: James Abdou
Technical Director: Maia Robbins-Zust
Patron and Visiting Artist Services Mgr: Corissa Bryantghjh
Producing Director at ‘62CTD: Randal Fippinger
Operations Manager: Nathaniel Wiessner

Special Thanks to Stephen Sondheim

In considering how to approach this review of Our Time, a Collage of Records from Williams, directed by Omar Sangare, Professor of Theatre, I came to the conclusion that it was imperative to concentrate not only on the title of the production, which seems neutral enough at first glance, but how it was described in the official announcement. As a co-production of the Williams Theatre Department and “Sondheim@90@Williams,” to honor the 90th birthday of Stephen Sondheim as an illustrious member of Williams Class of 19501, Our Time was presented “in celebration” of this birthday. That final phrase might lead us to expect a revue of Mr. Sondheim’s most-loved tunes with a new, student-generated book encasing them, but Our Time was nothing of the sort. The only musical element, other than a period recording played over a table radio, consisted of tentative chords of a sort that might function as a lead-in to a musical number, but which never quite coalesced into anything definite, much less a full progression oriented towards a destination. This negation of music accomplished just what I believe it was intended to—to establish a slow tempo for the entire performance and to create a mood of foreboding. Ultimately, there was nothing celebratory about this hour of earnest brooding on student life at Williams over seventy years ago.

I am also intrigued by what “our” means in the title. Does it mean the time (1946-50) Mr. Sondheim shared with his generation at Williams? Or does it refer to the times the Williams Class of ‘50 shares with the Classes of 2020 through 2023 or 2024, with Ilya Khodosh’s Class of 2008 added in? Or have the generations of the show’s creators co-opted Sondheim’s group in a personal, subjective riff on the experience and identity of being a student at this small, selective institution?

I can imagine that Mr. Sondheim, who has been recognized as a composer/lyricist who has revivified American musical theater by introducing more serious undercurrents into his shows, would take the uncompromising seriousness of Williams’ birthday “celebration” as a profound compliment. And for the rest of us in the audience, accepting the last of the alternatives I just mentioned, it was a fascinating excursion into the consciousness of contemporary Williams students, as they turn their attention from their own concerns amidst the issues, identitarian or otherwise, which dominate life on the campus today, to the amusements and concerns of the all-male, predominantly white, student body of the late 1940s.2 As masculine and goal-oriented as these young men were, the aimless introductory sounds belied this, and suggested that sea-changes were on the way which were beyond their ken.

Professor Sangare and Ilya Khodosh, Visiting Lecturer in Theatre and a recent Williams graduate (‘08), perhaps following the example of Caryl Churchill, devised the show while collaging its text from internal documents chosen by the student actors. Therefore the utterings of Mr. Sondheim’s classmates, made generally within the confines of a fraternity house to the accompaniment of whiskey and cigars, consist of the considered periods of editorialists in the Williams Record or other writers for various entities within the college or its fraternities. This gives the script an old-fashioned flair, suggesting Ibsen, whose husbands and wives converse in complete sentences, or, more apposite to the time, the college debating society.

Our Time, a Collage of Records from Williams. Photo Brad Wakoff.
Our Time, a Collage of Records from Williams. Photo Brad Wakoff.

In its handsome, polished way, the look of the production (highest praise to director Omar Sangare, designer David Gürçay-Morris, lighting designer Coby Chasman-Beck, and costume designer Barbara Bell), with its elaborate blocking, suggesting stage practices of the ‘40s—distantly set back on the stage, in order to suggest the passing of all those years that intervened between 1946 and 2020—reinforced the formal discipline of the texts. The lighting was somber and often coming from the sides, evoking a noirish mood. These outstanding qualities of the production accomplished much in leading the audience into the show, as the students engaged in humorless discussions of their own privileged positions in society, race issues, and the activities of HUAC. One student brought up the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—to his comrades’ total indifference. If there was anything in the show that was not quite convincing, it was the unremitting earnestness of the students, unrelieved even by repeated visitations to the bottle, who smiled only when discussing a spring break on Bermuda in the company of young women from Smith and Vassar—and then fairly tepidly. Well, it’s true that the immediate post-war generation didn’t benefit from the teachings of Tom Lehrer, as we did. For that matter, I didn’t hear one hint about the joys of learning, until Stephen Sondheim himself took over the stage in a video interview at the end, as he warmly and gratefully recounted an art history class with S. Lane Faison.3 For him Williams was all about the faculty and their challenging teaching, not himself or his fellow students.

Williams never seems to be at a loss for talented actors, and this was no exception. They wore their costumes convincingly, expressed their general uneasiness, and entered fully into the inchoate assurance of privileged American collegians, who still had in their mouths that now-quaint or abhorred principle of “excellence” as a self-realizing justification for themselves and their rarified education. I should add that there were scenes devoted to students who didn’t fit in: a then unclubbable Jew who was excluded from the fraternities and a married black soldier at Williams on the GI Bill. Closest to the physical being of the college and furthest from its doings was an Asian buildings and grounds man, who complained of the students’ lack of pride in scattering the lawns with bottles and papers and other detritus.

Our Time, a Collage of Records from Williams is a product of a singular community and the encounter of two generations within it, separated by seventy years. If it were a sheaf of history term-papers, I’d say the students had challenged themselves to understand their subject—all the more hermetic because it belongs to their own tightly-knit tribe. But this is theater, and historical understanding and accuracy are relative values within the creators’ purposes—although I personally find it enriching in my own theater work. The keen interest aroused by this collision of generations justifies itself as well as the performance, although I would have been happy to enjoy an occasional froisson [sic] of irony or humor. I am reminded of Joyce Carol Oates’ much-discussed story, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” which, set only a year after Stephen Sondheim’s graduation from Williams, recounts controversial biographical details from Robert Frost’s life. If one reads it as a feminist statement against a member of a generation of men who routinely treated women badly, it seems a rather watery broth. On the other hand, if we take it as an ambiguous take on the kind of confrontation which results when someone, most likely a woman, (like the interviewer in the story) in her early 30s today, reads Frost’s work and considers it from her own, contemporary perspective, our reading gains body and spice. Similarly, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was demanded by its time, and, whether it represents sound historical method or not, it continues to amuse us today. In a similar vein, Our Time proves a haunting example of strong theater, and, if its five-performance run was cut sort by the Corona virus, this video remains as a document of Williams, ca. 2020-23.

Our Time, a Collage of Records from Williams: Final Scene. Photo Brad Wakoff.
Our Time, a Collage of Records from Williams: Final Scene. Photo Brad Wakoff.

***

 

  1. for which the Williams Music Department also organized a day-and-a-half symposium about the composer and his work
  2. The first African-American student to enter Williams was a member of the Class of 1889.
  3. Williams ‘29, who died in 2006 at the age of 98. From this one can immediately see how Sondheim came to Sunday in the Park with George. Even more important was his decision to abandon his early intention to major in mathematics in favor of music after taking a freshman year elective in the subject.
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Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L'Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides' Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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