Thursday, February 19, 2015

Merrily We Roll Along

In 1981, legendary composer Stephen Sondheim released a new musical called "Merrily We Roll Along."  The musical -- which featured a very young Jason Alexander -- was a flop that was cancelled after about two weeks.  (They actually recorded the cast album after the show closed.)

Now, normally, of course, that would be the end of the story.  But Sondheim is a genius, and "Merrily We Roll Along" contained some spectacular songs.  Furthermore, Sondheim and George Furst (who wrote the book for the show) kept working on it, trying to make it better.  Over time, it has been revived from time to time -- in slightly different forms -- and a new recording of the soundtrack (based on a New York City Center Encores performance) was released in 2012.  To this day, it retains a relatively strong cult following.

What explains the odd history of this musical?  If the show is so bad, why does it keep coming back?  If the show is so good, why did it flop?  More importantly, is it worth listening to?

To understand the strengths and weaknesses of this show, it helps to know some more about its background.  "Merrily We Roll Along" is based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.  (You've heard of Kaufman and Hart; they wrote "You Can't Take It With You" (1936), and "The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1939)).  For "Merrily We Roll Along" they had a really clever idea.  The play opens with a scene in the home of a rich and famous playwright who is known for writing light, fluffy, society comedies.  But we learn that the playwright (who appears to have it all) is miserable -- his second wife hates him, he's alienated from his old friends, he hates the vapid plays that he writes, and he finds his "success" to be meaningless.  Then the play goes backward in time, and we see how the playwright's life got into the condition we see in the opening scene.  The last scene shows the young playwright, soaked in idealism, speaking at his college graduation -- and promising to remain true to his friends and his dreams.

As a play, "Merrily We Roll Along" wasn't as successful as some of Kaufman and Hart's more famous efforts, but it crackles with wit and energy.  The backward plot sets up a series of mysteries -- how did these characters come to hate each other, how did that one guy make a fortune, why did the playwright leave his friends and ideals -- and then answers them.  The last act, which finally reveals why the playwright abandoned serious literature for light comedy, shows the audience that the playwright is not the simple sell-out they were led to expect.

This was the play Sondheim and Furst decided to turn into a musical.  The original play ran from 1934 to 1916; Sondheim moved the action from the late 1970's to the mid-1950's.  The playwright became a musical composer; his idealistic friend (a painter in the play) became his lyricist.  At the beginning of the story, Franklin Shepherd has abandoned composing for a lucrative career producing formula movies in Hollywood.  And so we follow him back to the 1950's, when he starts working on his first musical.

Now, in theory, there was nothing wrong with this plan.  And the material really appealed to Sondheim.  He generated a fabulous collection of songs, which reflect the various time periods they are supposed to represent.  Three songs in particular stand out -- "Opening Doors," in which the young Franklin Shepherd and his friends are starting their careers; "Old Friends," where Shepherd and his friends are wrestling with the difficult issues presented by success; and "Franklin Shepherd, Inc.," where Shepherd's best friend publicly attacks him for caring too much about money -- thus ending their friendship.

Unfortunately, the original production apparently could not bring these items together.  The show was originally staged with very young actors playing all the characters, in a set designed to look like a schoolyard, and with each actor wearing a tee-shirt identifying his or her character.  As far as I can tell from the original reviews, the effects were too jarring for the audience, who also found the plot difficult to follow.

Over time, many of these aspects were changed, and the musical is now staged with 30-something actors whose costumes reflect the changing times.  These changes allow the audience to pay more attention to the very entertaining score -- if you like musical theater, you will probably find a lot to love in this soundtrack.

But my guess is that "Merrily We Roll Along" will never become as famous as its music deserves, because the backwards plot that worked for Kaufman and Hart works against Sondheim.  The original play goes backwards because it's a mystery -- the audience is taught to hate the playwright, but the last act shows that his story is more complicated than it seems.  To get this effect, however, Kaufman and Hart had to use an enormous cast and introduce some new characters in the final act.  The musical doesn't do this -- it stays focused on the same characters from beginning to end.  This decision avoids sandbagging the audience with new characters, but by eliminating the twist, it eliminates much of the drama.  The show starts with a big, unhappy song -- and then slowly gets happier and happier.  By the end, I've forgotten the beginning and I'm left with the sense that this is a feel-good story.

Of course, I personally don't mind feel-good stories any more; as I grow older, I have less and less interest in tragedy.  And maybe some audience members will feel Franklin Shepherd's pain despite (or even because of) the happy music.  But it's a lot to ask, and it limits the potential audience for some very clever and beautiful music.

Still, if you're in charge of a regional theater company, or you want to hear some Broadway songs you've never heard before, or you want to think about how your middle-aged self differs from your younger self, "Merrily We Roll Along" is worth your attention.

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