WATERTOWN — One way to measure greatness is to test how well an artist’s work accommodates changing social circumstances, how it stands up in a new context. Think, for example, of the Shakespeare productions that have unfolded in other times and places than the playwright originally intended, or, indeed, could ever have envisioned.
Now, nearly a decade after Massachusetts led the way nationally by legalizing same-sex marriage, the New Repertory Theatre is staging a production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Marry Me a Little’’ that broadens its scope to include gay relationships.
It works, and beautifully, too. Directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins, the New Rep’s “Marry Me a Little’’ is an appealingly understated gem of a revue. Melancholy and uplifting by turns — but mostly melancholy; this is Sondheim we’re talking about, after all — the show underscores the necessity and difficulty of human connection, gay or straight.
There’s no story to speak of. Built on tunes that were cut from shows like “Anyone Can Whistle,’’ “Follies,’’ “Company,’’ “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’’ and “A Little Night Music,’’ it is the brainchild of playwright Craig Lucas and the late director Norman René. In 1980, apparently recognizing that even Sondheim’s least-known songs deserved a showcase, Lucas and René organized some of his outtakes into an evening about two lonely New Yorkers on a Saturday night. Yearning for love inside their separate apartments, the man and the woman were seemingly unaware of each other’s existence.
The New Rep is not the first theater to alter the revue to encompass gay characters. In 1999, Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles presented “Marry Me a Little’’ with two men in the roles. But New Rep’s reworking doubles the cast. After receiving permission from Sondheim to take a gender-blind approach, Robbins and musical director David McGrory assigned songs in ways that result in a variety of pairings: a man and a woman, a man and a man, and a woman and a woman.
The New Rep production features a solid ensemble: Aimee Doherty, Erica Spyres (who certifies her rising-star status with a magnetic performance), Phil Tayler, and Brad Daniel Peloquin. Their characters have no names; they’re identified in the playbill as Woman 1, Man 2, and so on. Not until the very end does the quartet meet, in a poignant coda that is also a beginning of sorts.
They occupy four different rooms on Erik Diaz’s marvelously detailed, two-tiered set. Tayler’s scruffy dwelling, with a mattress on the floor, is in keeping with the bearded, shorts-wearing skateboarder he portrays. Spyres is the dreamy innocent of the bunch, with polka-dotted bedsheets and a stuffed animal on her pillow. Doherty’s character, in a kitchen of burnished wood, projects a purposeful air that soon yields to restlessness. Peloquin’s character, apparently unwinding from a long workday but not ready to shed his necktie, moves about a dining room of muted gray.
They form alternating pairs throughout the evening as they perform little-known tunes like “Girls of Summer,’’ “A Moment With You,’’ “Can That Boy Foxtrot,’’ “Pour le Sport,’’ and “Rainbows.’’ Half a dozen of the show’s 18 numbers are presented as same-sex romantic yearning. Midway through comes a moment that carries a special resonance precisely because the words are sung by one man to another. Peloquin and Tayler team up for a duet on “So Many People,’’ from “Saturday Night,’’ a show written by Sondheim in the mid-1950s but not produced professionally until more than 40 years later: “So many people in the world/And what can they do/They’ll never know love/Like my love for you/So many people laugh/At what they don’t know/But that’s their concern/If just a few, say/Half a million or so/Could see us/They’d learn.’’
We in the audience also learn a thing or two, inferentially at least, about some of the might-have-beens and compromises of Sondheim’s career. For example, the New Rep foursome sings “Happily Ever After,’’ a skeptical view of relationships that was originally slated as Bobby’s final solo in 1970’s “Company’’ but was considered too gloomy and replaced by “Being Alive.’’ In “Happily Ever After’’ we hear some of the lyrics Sondheim repurposed for “Being Alive,’’ but without that song’s unpersuasively gung-ho tone. The original is much closer to Sondheim’s sardonic spirit.
Not everyone embraces that spirit, of course, and “Marry Me a Little’’ is probably only a must-see (and -hear) for Sondheim devotees. But that population may be increasing. The composer’s 80th birthday a couple of years ago prompted a flood of Sondheim productions around the country, and also, I suspect and hope, a wider awareness that if you’re ranking the greatest artists of the last half-century, Stephen Sondheim is on the very short list.