Friday, November 29, 2013

"Merrily" Gets A Makeover

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…

Merrily We Roll Along
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

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!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ding-Dong: Hello!

Hello! Happy November, people of the world! Today, we’re going to discuss my most recent Broadway musical experience: Book Of Mormon!

Omigod, Amy! How did you EVER get tickets for BOM? The answer is quite simple, young padawan: Standing Room!  My mother and I arrived at the standing room line about 2½ hours before curtain (we sped over as soon as Annie – starring the hilarious Jane Lynch! – let out). We were almost the last two to be granted standing room spots. But by golly, we got in!!!  And for all those weirdos stunned by our willingness to wait for 2½ hours for a musical, I say we are no weirder than those who camp out for days for Rolling Stones tickets or park their asses in front of Toys-R-Us on Thanksgiving to acquire some flavor-of-the-week material object on Black Friday. And I’d do it all again (probably will), cuz it was totally worth the experience …and the $27 ticket price!

Book Of Mormon
Music, Lyrics, & Book: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, & Robert Lopez
Broadway Debut: 2011
Tony Nominations-Wins: 13-9

Book Of Mormon follows two Latter Day Saints missionaries – devout, clean-cut, naïve, Orlandophile, Elder Price and awkward, also-naïve, sci-fi aficionado and compulsive fibber, Elder Cunninham (who has never actually read the Book of Mormon) – on their 2-year mission assignment to impoverished, AIDS-riddled Uganda.  They have trouble connecting with the local villagers, as they are more preoccupied with poverty, famine, AIDS, and a genocidal, anti-clitoris warlord. 

Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s (the creators of South Park, in case you didn’t already know) style of humor is crass, crude, obscene, and remarkably genuine.  Absolutely nothing is sacred on South Park (which is where their in-good-fun Mormon-bashing began).  However, despite the offensive content, the four letter words and immature shenanigans often make way for a valuable moral or nugget of common sense to be learned at the conclusion. Even South Park has shining moments of real morality and social awareness stuffed in the gaps between fart jokes and shock value gimmicks.  The stars of the show (four loveable, foul-mouthed Colorado fourth-graders) often have something substantial to learn by the end of each episode, after trudging through the often puerile antics of their clueless parents and adult townspeople.   

Parker & Stone amplify that smut-with-a-message motif in Book Of Mormon.  BOM makes hilariously merciless jabsat Mormon faith, credibility, customs, and doctrines.  It lampoons famed musicals of old with song styles and references.  It mocks the AIDS pandemic in Africa, murderous warlords, organized religion, and female circumcision.  Yet, it also wraps the audience in the reminder that even though organized religion may seem bizarre and may not be for everybody, even when we stumble or lose our way, even though the world/people/God can be devastatingly cruel, humanity and faith in human perseverance can be found anywhere, even ravaged Uganda.  BOM shows that “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” isn’t a real place, but a metaphor; an idea of how collectively striving for perfection makes us “holy”.  It’s up to people to create paradise on Earth by being and doing the good they wish to see in the world and being “really fucking polite to everyone.”

NABULUNGI: But we aren’t going to Sal Tlay Ka Siti!

VILLAGER: Nabulungi…Sal Tlay Ka Siti isn’t an actual place! It’s an idea….a METAPHOR.

MAFALA HATIMBI: Yes, you must remember that prophets always speak in metaphors.

VILLAGER: You don’t think Joseph Smith actually fucked a frog, do you? That’s fucking stupid.

I find it simply deplorable when people shit on other people for the sake of shitting on other people.  I’m not saying we should all hold hands and sing “Kumbaya,” but can’t we just leave each other the fuck alone?  Some people think that’s the only way to succeed in life (“…two kinds of men: The one staying put in his proper place andthe one with his foot in the other man’s face.”), as if we’re incapable of being human beings to each other. Book Of Mormon does the opposite.  BOM encourages the push to make life better, even though it’s far from easy.  And that’s basically Rule #1 of any Judeo-Christian rulebook: Don’t be an asshole.  I realize a lot of people have trouble with this concept, but I assure you it’s really not that difficult. Just try it!

Okay, rant over.  So basically, Book Of Mormon lives up to its hype.  There’s something for everyone.  It’s funny as hell with catchy, tunes with substantial lyrics, an uplifting message, and sick, twisted humor.  It’s also all any South Park fan would expect when Trey Parker & Matt Stone attempt to put on a musical. I highly suggest parking your derrières at the Standing Room line for 2½-3 hours and see it (Tip o’ the Trade: If you go with a friend, one of you stay in line while the other gets takeout so you both don’t starve, lose your spot, pay tip, OR pay the sharing charge the NYC restaurants tend to slap on you)!
Fun Fact: The Broadway production came in under budget at $9 million (as opposed to the expected $11 million), which the show recouped in just 9 months of performances!