In 1983, of course, we thought goodness was rewarded, an idea that is corrosively stripped away in Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, a legendary musical failure that ran on Broadway for 16 performances in 1981. Last night, at the Regal Union Square Stadium 14, in advance of its October 23 nationwide screening, an extremely well-produced film of the acclaimed Menier Chocolate Factory’s London stage version was shown to New York audiences (Maria Friedman has empathetically directed; she has also straightforwardly edited a film of the production, without fancy cinematography or close-ups–you can even hear audience reactions, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself applauding, forgetting that you aren’t in the theater with them). Had this been what was presented in New York during the early ‘80s, the trajectory of American musical theatre would have been different.
Not that Merrily We Roll Along would ever be an easy musical to explore for anyone—even today, the lyrics and music don’t dovetail with the book. They’re mismatched in a way reminiscent of the romantic music Edvard Grieg wrote for Henrik Ibsen’s pre-modernist verse play Peer Gynt. “Now You Know,” clearly the work of a master craftsman, is a song so emotionally loaded and unsettling that it conclusively busts open the well-made structure of the book by George Furth, as well as the Kaufman and Hart play (1936) on which the show is based. You’ll feel, at moments like this, that Sondheim’s guts are hanging out all over (the story is about a composer, after all). The book, however, about a successful novelist (what is the subject of her fiction, anyway?) and successful theatre and movie writers is too premeditated, too melodramatic and too artificial for the raw, overwrought emotional places Sondheim wants to take us. That the friends, in the show, all happen to become famous–and that one can even air his grievances, at length, to the other on national TV (recalling the Mousetrap scene in Hamlet) or that one of the musical team's children just happens to be born on the opening night of his successful new show are too obvious, too best-sellerish, too formulated, too coincidental. However, we can relate to more down-to-earth versions of these characters even in our own real, banal lives: the young artists, the patient wife, the vamp, the roommates, and characters we know well from old movies, plays, Jacqueline Susann-Herman Wouk-Irving Shaw-Sidney Sheldon beach reads and the mini-series formula we knew so well from the ‘70s. Sondheim writes virtuoso material for them—but they’re trash characters, really, and they don’t deserve it.
George Furth did not talk about Merrily We Roll Along when he spoke to our class at the Tisch School of the Arts in 1983—he might have been still smarting. As I recall, he discussed Precious Sons and Twigs. As a group, we were probably most excited by the fact that he had been in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. What I remember most clearly is the fact that, when he introduced himself, he immediately told us that he was Gay: Gay, as if a badge of honor; Gay, as a political and artistic “statement” (admittedly we were in the early years of the AIDs epidemic), which nevertheless, seemed a bit off-topic (we were in a text analysis class, after all). Today, I hope someone asked him the questions that we didn’t, my old friend and me, about his partnership with Sondheim (Furth died in 2008). The issue in Sondheim-Furth musicals (the other is Company–1970 ) is the central male character—some believe Bobby, in that show, is a cipher or a closeted homosexual. In Merrily We Roll Along the character, Franklin Shepard, doesn’t seem torn at the start—and he doesn’t seem written to be so–yet we understand that he is giving up his career as a musician to be a producer. The excellent actor, Mark Umbers, who portrays him, in the film of the Menier Chocolate Factory production, gives the character an Adonis-like air (because we are watching a filmed stage production, actors work in slightly bigger ways than what we see in naturalistic movies, and there are small moments where we realize the Britishness of the pronunciations). Right for the pulpiness of the basic material, this forces him to act in a more posed way, with his shoulders, torso, and abs—Gay viewers, as well as straight women, will be quite taken! Nevertheless, it’s a tricky first scene, among largely unsympathetic characters, because Furth and Sondheim haven’t given us reason to care about Franklin—we see him being bombarded by drunks and fakes and Hollywood insiders and hangers-on, and those from his previous relationships. But he’s sealed shut, the Randian man, from a liberal’s point of view. He doesn’t expose any fissures or still-painful wounds, as we watch his behavior, and we wonder why the creators won’t make him human–he’s not even a prick or ball-buster. We even wonder if this can really be his play—and we throw our attention to the truth-teller of the bunch, Mary, fabulously performed by Jenna Russell.
To what extent Furth and Sondheim are making a comment about success or straight men is debatable—the movie Wall Street would not come out until 1987, where the idea that greed was good was expressed to the general public, an assertion that has remained with us, perhaps, due to the nation’s rocky economic history. However, there is no question that Sondheim is rebutting a tuneful opening number—just as Rodgers and Hammerstein had refuted large choruses for the start of musicals during their heyday. Sondheim will pointedly refer to the subject of melody and rhythm in an unhummable number about writing an unhummable song later in the evening, but it’s like teen obstinacy (Sondheim can break our hearts, like we are watching a kid grow up, because he reminds us of how painful our lives, all our lives, can or could be). He does, of course, write shimmering melody and gorgeous, gorgeous music, which is often looked past when we discuss his work now (and it was often bypassed in 1983, too, when we talked about him during classwork, videoing on Second Avenue in the Village, or sitting on the floor of a railroad apartment, playing the songs of Merrily We Roll Along). Even in the sublimity of a score like Passion, for example–and this show, of course, comes later (1994)–he’ll throw in a clunky marching number, just to make sure you’ll never confuse him with Frederick Loewe.
As Merrily We Roll Along begins, Sondheim meets us as an auteur (with the help of orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, a master who will have fun tucking in a small gesture to Bacharach in the ‘60s section of this show–“promises, promises” also comes up as part of the dialogue). The opening, however, is a reference to Company, with the momentum and throbbing of the earlier musical’s “Bobby baby, Bobby Bubbi” vamp. It’s Sondheim’s signature city sound (even though it doesn’t seem much like a musical equivalent of California, where the play opens—we will soon be in Manhattan, though). It's actually a Bergmanesque touch, from the composer of A Little Night Music, which the Swedish director had acknowledged in a polite, if cool way (Sondheim actually agrees with him): “[A Little Night Music has] nothing to do with my movie; it merely has the same story.” Regardless, the opening of Merrily We Roll Along signals that this music, and this composer, has a significant catalogue to refer to, and that this unhummable music is part of core Broadway scores. And if no one likes that idea, the referencing beginning seems to say, you can “smoke on your pipe and put that in.” Actually, only two words from Sondheim’s previous masterpiece needed to be mentioned at the time to get our attention: “Sweeney. Todd.” My old friend and I saw it together in 1979, a gracious gift from her parents.
Maybe he thought the show was going to please the giants–a perfected Allegro, a story about the price of success and the first Rodgers and Hammerstein musical with a book by the renowned lyricist, Sondheim’s mentor. This might even have been his Comden and Green musical, his On the Town—a mainstream New York show by the new Leonard Bernstein. The assumption we made about Stephen Sondheim in 1983, anyway, was that he never really liked collaborations. Noted as a lyricist in his early career, he wanted to form his own identity as a composer, as soon as possible, yet felt compelled to work, after Leonard Bernstein, with Jule Styne and Richard Rodgers. It was clear, however, that he was not an “and” writer. It put him in a position of extreme power—and maybe we’ll never know how much of the shifting musical process he actually could control. But, as we even heard in 1983, the Achilles heel of a Sondheim show was the book, even if this one had the potential to break as many assumptions about musical theatre as Sondheim had done with music and lyrics. Perhaps the composer thought the backward storytelling was a way to attack form, comparable to the ways he was revolutionizing song. What no one expected, I guess, was that Merrily We Roll Along did not share the intensity, despite Furth’s airtight script and Sondheim’s leitmotifs, jagged edges, and confessions. The material was not Pinter, and it was not Betrayal (1978). It was a novelty, perhaps a realization that could not have hurt Sondheim more.
What takes you by surprise, in the Menier Chocolate Factory film, is the crystalline beauty of “Not a Day Goes By,” exquisitely performed by Clare Foster. It’s not the yenta cuppa coffee advice Sondheim and Hammerstein don’t mind doling out in “Children Will Listen” or “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” or “Whistle a Happy Tune,” or "No One is Alone," or "You'll Never Walk Alone." Because we’ve been snuck up on, we’re completely disarmed, and you may come away thinking that there has never been a purer song—or a simpler expression of a thought.
Of course, in 1983, we had just come to New York to be artists, both accepted at the Tisch School of the Arts (as dramatists). I was also a composer, who had recently begun a relationship with a young woman from the South. My best friends were people I knew from the theatre—a guy who wore glasses and had horse sense from his Jewish upbringing, and my old friend, who wanted to be a screenwriter and was a very good one. We ended up in the same text analysis class visited by the playwright George Furth. It would have been impossible to afford Broadway shows, on our part-time salaries, so we made a video on Second Avenue in the Village, asking strangers on the street to tell us their "fantasy"–today, we'd probably say "dream." We listened to original cast albums and debated ideas about theater out on the stoop or on the floor of her railroad apartment. My writer friend, my old friend, had the record of Merrily We Roll Along. Others related their lives to the characters in A Chorus Line, but when “Old Friend” played, it was clearly our anthem. Ultimately, she did not return to school, went into publishing, and moved to another city; I got married. Merrily We Roll Along no longer was the subject of conversation, and no one ever knew that Stephen Sondheim had written a musical about us. She liked a good martini.
© 2013 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.