Revues based on the music of a single and singular composer are nothing new. However, centering a work around one lyricist — and a relatively unknown one at that — is a more risky undertaking. But thanks to Mark Campbell’s smart, funny and ever-revealing words, a variety of equally deft, low- to midprofile composers and a graceful, assured perf by Michael Winther, “Songs From an Unmade Bed” might be one of the best hours not spent in bed.
Campbell’s lyrics loosely follow an exploration of one gay man’s urban search for love. Sounds like you’ve heard this thematic song before, no? William Finn might first come to mind, but Campbell’s lean style, sly point of view and overall sensibility, more often than not, are entirely his own.
The 18 composer pals he turns to for this endeavor match the message with sophisticated and beguiling melodies, wrapped in loving arrangements by music director Kimberly Grigsby, who leads an onstage trio of musicians.
Wearing mismatched pajamas and wrapping his sheets around his body like a stylish shroud, Winther begins the show in a large bed, bemoaning in song (music by Jenny Giering) the fact that he could die alone in “this most neglected of rooms … without causing much of a stir.”
In the privacy of his bedroom, he then reviews the reasons for his perpetual bachelorhood. His experiences with love, lust and loss are, at first glance, familiar: dating the wrong type, taking a lover for granted, being led too often by the libido, becoming unreasonably jealous, problems with the remote.
But the delight is in the details of Campbell’s words and his many twists, spins and grace notes. He talks not of a traditional romantic triangle, but one with the ante upped in “The Other Other Woman” (music by Jake Heggie): “Your entree comes with only one side … I won’t agree to play your under-understudy.” In “He Plays the Cello” (music by Jeffrey Stock), he sweetly sings about a lover’s horrible therapeutic playing (“He doesn’t get so/Unstrung about such things/If he can find time/For strangling his strings.”) In a different take on the traditional love song to the city (music by Peter Golub) he sings, “I miss New York/And I live here.”
The composers have all risen to the challenge of letting the words have their say. “The Man in the Starched White Shirt” (music by Lance Horn) offers the right musical accompaniment to the relationship with a wealthy older man (“His closet’s so impressive/It must not be easy to leave.”). Likewise, in “Exit Right,” composer Steven Lutvak gives just the right melodic lift to the singular joke: “Sex with an actor/What was I thinking?” Stephen Hoffman’s elegant music in “Our Separate Ways,” which takes place at a lover’s memorial service, allows the words room to breathe, live and mourn.
Winther, whose character is on the cusp between aging boyishness and middle age, makes it look all so easy and relaxed. Never cloying or cute, he offers just the right tone to make such self-analysis appealing. That he sings like a dream helps, too.
Because the one-hour show doesn’t outstay its welcome, “Songs From an Unmade Bed” might attract audiences beyond the obvious gay base to tap into the heartbreak and humor of single life in the city. With one performer and set, and a few onstage musicians, it also makes for a production easy to transfer and tour. At the very least, it showcases a lyrical talent who deserves a greater theatrical stage.