I’ve been thinking a lot about a special evening at the movies last month. Theatres across the country presented a one-night screening of the West End production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I’m a bit of a Sondheim groupie. So anything Sondheim-related arguably makes me more excitable than a Muppet on ecstasy. However, I was pretty unfamiliar with this show going in. I knew it owned the heartbreakingly beautiful number, “Not A Day Goes By” AND that it was Sondheim’s biggest critical and second biggest commercial flop (though it closed after only 16 performances, it still didn’t beat Anyone Can Whistle’s painful 9). Did I care? No sir-ee! I booked my ticket and skipped all the way to the theatre. I’m glad I did buy tickets in advance, because it was PACKED (about 90% full, which is about 40% more than most drum corps show screenings I’ve been to)! I couldn’t believe the amount of people this flop drew in little ol’ King of Prussia, PA. Even more amazing was the surprisingly diverse age range (20s to Older-Than-Dirt). I expected a bunch of blue-hairs, but not young whippersnappers like me! But then again, unexpected sci-fi nerds of all shapes, sizes, and ages come out of the woodwork too for comic-con…
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: George Furth
Broadway Debut: 1981
Tony Nominations-Wins: 1-0
Based On: George Kaufman & Moss Hart’s play of the same name
Based On: George Kaufman & Moss Hart’s play of the same name
Merrily We Roll Along observes, in reverse, the lives of three friends – composer, Frank; playwright, Charley; and writer, Mary – across a span of 20 years. The show is played out in a series of reversed chronological vignettes, mapping out significant events that shape the friends’ lives and their shift from hopeful, idealistic youth to compromised and embittered middle-age. As the years roll not-so-merrily back over twenty years of his life, we see how Frank (Friend #1) went from penniless composer to wealthy producer, and what (and who) he gave up to get there. He begins the show as a successful Hollywood producer hosting a swinging party celebrating yet another of his hit fluff movies. Alcoholic, resentful theatre critic (Friend #2), Mary, sits in the corner, stewing. When the sore subject of playwright, Charley (Friend #3), is brought up, Mary can stand the party’s frivolity no longer and drunkenly chastises Frank for being a sellout, insults his guests, and leaves. The years peel back to gradually reveal Frank and Charley’s catastrophic falling out (on national television), Frank’s bitter divorce as a result of infidelity with Broadway star, Gussie, and Mary’s long-lasting, unrequited love for Frank. Each of the three friends is faced with difficult decisions throughout their lives that compromise their careers, relationships, and morals. Many of their choices are made to achieve the success they so desired in their youth, but drew unexpected consequences.
Though the score was critically acclaimed (or course!), the original production was riddled with flaws and problems. Teenagers were initially cast in the lead roles (first mistake). Staging was also an issue: the audience was extremely confused and had trouble understanding what was going on in the story. Telling the story in reverse and featuring a rather unlikeable hero only complicated matters. The confusion resulted in a last-ditch effort for clarity with the actors all wearing sweatshirts with their characters’ names on the front (second mistake).
However, former-cast-member-turned-West-End-director, Maria Friedman made some drastic changes that evolved Sondheim’s work (with his blessing, of course) into a much more engaging, relatable production. She ditched the green teenagers in sweatshirts for seasoned actors in their forties and emphasized Frank’s appealing charisma and vulnerability. Her staging and fleshed-out characters eliminated confusion and gave the audience a likeable hero.
When asked why bother digging up such a failure of a show for a revamp, Friedman replied that it is because of the ideas all his musicals contain. “There are rarely conclusions there, just ideas so the shows can keep moving and growing, and each age group will have an entirely different take on a piece because it encompasses so many different aspects of humanity in its mess and its effort and its courage.”
I. LOVE. That!!! His shows really are timeless and capable of reevaluation, as they push ideas over plots. Among the many things I love about Sondheim, I think he truly excels at making the audience think. He doesn’t tell you what to think; he just forces you to think. And there is no right answer in his shows. Sondheim rarely gives us black and white situations because they rarely exist in reality. Frank makes many choices in Merrily, but his choices are real and human and full of conflict. The audience has/gets to decide if his choices were right or wrong. He tends to do that in most of his work. He’s not concerned with putting on a good show; he wants to communicate thoughts over plots. Sure, some of his plots are better than others. Even though it’s received a creative overhaul, Merrily will never be Into The Woods or Sweeney Todd. But the tough, complex situations are still there, inviting us to interpretation.
In Merrily, we see the characters make choices that spiral their lives downward and away from each other. It's easy for us to say that they're doing the wrong thing or making seriously bad interpersonal moves. It's easy for us to sit and pass judgement on these people as outside observers. But how often do we make bad choices ourselves that we can only realize were wrong in retrospect. We are rarely able to see the long term consequences of our actions in the present. We can only look back and determine after the fact if we made the right decisions. As the reverse chronological order of the show reflects, we can't look into the future and see where we end up. We can only look back into the past and see how far we've come.
In a world of tablets and Playstations and iPhones, where we can play on autopilot ant get any information we desire by pressing a button, it’s truly refreshing to still have an abstract outlet that compels us to think for ourselves. You get a composer like Andrew Lloyd Webber (I’m really not trying to trash ALW, he’s just a good example!), whose work is like an ice cream bar. You can throw a plethora of toppings and sauces and flavors on it, but at the end of the day, it’s still just a scoop of ice cream underneath. Then you look at Sondheim and you’ve got a succulent, gourmet dessert buffet. You’ve got rich, decadent chocolate; fluffy, sweet cream; tart fruits and berries; bitter coffee (optional)… Sondheim is, in short, a festival of flavor. It’s never just one taste or sense or emotion. You have a whole buffet to choose from!