March 27, 2018
Much of the American musical theater repertoire falls into one of two camps: the over-sung or the underappreciated. In the former reside box-office behemoths like Hamilton, The Book of Mormon, and Wicked, the sort of show that has exhausted any external creative impetus and now exists purely in relation to itself. In the latter live all the unfamiliar tunes from the hits that ought to have been, a framework that reacts against success and can never exist beyond a handful of creative insiders. Somewhere between the two lies the heart of the American musical.
How remarkable that Marin Mazzie has found that sweet spot. Celebrating 35 years in show business, the leading lady came to Stanford Live on Friday night with an hour-long cabaret set, featuring more than a dozen great songs, all masterfully interpreted.
Now, Mazzie certainly has a leg up with respect to material. At least a quarter of her set derived from roles she has played on Broadway. “Hello Young Lovers,” “So In Love,” and “Back to Before” were all sung in this vein: an actress in command of both song and character, looking back on the parts that brought her critical acclaim. These tunes were nostalgic by disposition but tinged with a characteristic darkness as Mazzie dug into her low register, tossed off the occasional blunt phrase, and belted a few choice notes.
Such bleak stylings were even more apparent in a pair of Sondheim numbers: the bitter “Send in the Clowns” and the maniacally determined “Some People.” Mazzie approached big musical moments with appropriate restraint, deferring to the warhorse nature of these roles for actresses in late middle-age. Unlike so many, she sang Desiree and Rose convincingly.
Yet this is markedly new territory for Mazzie. She has always tastefully nailed the expression of anger within a song, but never with such unapologetic age and experience. (For the past three years, Mazzie has been fighting late-stage ovarian cancer, though she made no direct mention of it in her set. The transformation is hers entirely.)
Heartbreak failed to define the evening, however. This was, in part, because of the diversity of Mazzie’s musical selections. Kander and Ebb’s tour-de-force “Ring Them Bells” displayed chutzpah, character-acting chops, and excellent comedic timing. Another sensational choice, “Before the Parade Passes By” was optimistic and declamatory in the best possible way, a subtle nod to the current Broadway revival of Hello Dolly! Expert tempos and musical direction from pianist Joseph Thalken kept every number moving forward.
But what ultimately distinguished Mazzie’s performance was great song after great song. Her roundup of standards from the golden age of American musical theater included nearly every major songwriting team of the last sixty years. Any living composer or lyricist on the program was introduced by his age: Jerry Herman, 86! Stephen Sondheim, 88! John Kander, 91! Sheldon Harnick, 93! Mazzie seemed to delight in each man’s age and productivity as much as her own.