Somewhat Merrily It Rolls Along
The CCM production of Merrily We Roll Along has got Filichia musing about the problems and strengths of the Sondheim-Furth musical.
Of course, this is partly because none of the above failures had a Stephen Sondheim-Harold Prince pedigree. Another factor is that Prince and his co-producers wisely decided to pull the plug quickly after the show opened to blistering reviews and rotten word of mouth -- no hanging around, no marketing campaign, no cuts in royalties for the authors, no putting up a fight. You don't want us? Fine. We know when we're not welcome. Sorry. We'll try to do better next time. Or, as a line in the show says, "You know what true greatness is? Knowing when to get off." It was this white-flag surrender that made Merrily catnip for directors all around the country. Here was this great score -- indeed, that was the one and only component of the production to get a Tony nomination -- so there just had to be a way of salvaging the show. Breathes there a director with a soul so dead that he didn't feel he could fix it? Of course not; hence, the deluge of productions.
Along the way, Furth and Sondheim did some of their own fixing. That's the version that arrived at the York Theatre Company in 1994 and the one that I saw at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music this weekend. While the 1981 edition had everyone at a Hollywood party mocking Franklin Shepard's latest film as "terrible...when a movie's that bad, what on earth can anyone say?" this version has Shepard's new movie a big success, just another triumph in a lucrative career. That doesn't sit well with Franklin's old friend Mary, but I can't say that I understand why. Is being an alcoholic who once wrote a best-seller but now writes nothing at all really better than being a film producer? Franklin is bringing some happiness to a certain segment of the movie audience, and that's got to be preferable to becoming a lush and telling a room full of people, "You are all junk."
But Merrily is about artistic integrity -- a theme that would obviously appeal to Sondheim, who much more often than not has worked on uncommercial properties and has paid something of a financial price for it. Granted, he's never had a day job since he began working professionally in the theater in 1947, and Lord knows that he's accumulated plenty of awards, but he's probably not as rich as some of his musical theater contemporaries. Though I haven't seen anybody's bankbook, I suspect that Jerry Herman and Charles Strouse, among plenty of others, have made more in royalties. Herman, Strouse, and others have given a lot of ticket-buyers great pleasure, just like Frank Shepard, whereas many of my civilian friends have tried to cotton to Sondheim but can't. They're nice people and I cherish them, whatever their artistic tastes.
Merrily, for most of its length, chides Frank for "selling out," and this could be the prime reason why audiences don't take to the show. Face it: Most theatergoers must feel as if they've sold out in some capacity. What about you, reading this right now? For all I know, you may be rich and happy -- but, on the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that you work at some job you don't adore, because it pays the bills and you need the money. Those who set their alarms each morning when they really don't want to may very well do so because they see no real alternative. How many of us wouldn't take a new job tomorrow if it offered us substantially more money? To quote another line from Merrily, "Damn few." That's pretty much what Franklin Shepard has done. He often mentions the family that he has to support -- first when he's with them, and then when he's not -- which is a pretty good rebuttal. It's also established that Charley has a wife and is the father of four. I'd say that Frank is pretty noble not to remind his partner that their having written two commercial hit Broadway shows has put plenty of bread on the table for Charley's family of six.
In 1981, much was made of what a cipher Franklin Shepard is; but I saw him differently in Cincinnati, where he was played with a good deal of sensitivity by Michael Lowe. Frank is a very human character, certainly flawed. He makes mistakes in choosing his spouses, but divorce statistics show that at least half of Americans do the same. The actual number is probably higher, for I'm acquainted (and I'll bet you are, too) with plenty of couples who haven't been in love for years but don't have the energy, money, or courage to split from their spouses. Frank's statement about his relationships -- "I've only made one mistake in my life, but I've made it over and over" -- must ring true with a good deal of theatergoers. But the authors want us to not like Frank because of his all-too-human failings. (I remember a former student of mine telling me, "I won't kiss anyone's ass for any reason." I thought, "Well, I guess that's why you haven't been at all successful.") Maybe Merrily should have been a musical that made us feel better about the mistakes and compromises we've all made in day-to-day living.
The other problem with Merrily is that it deals with the vagaries of show business. I always feel an audience's quiet in the scene where Frank and Charley are invited to Joe and Gussie's party. The songwriters perform their future hit "Good Thing Going," and when everyone at the party loves it, Gussie asks them to do it again. Frank's rarin' to go but Charley knows that show-biz rule to always leave 'em wanting more. Can we really blame Frank for his youthful excitement and for acquiescing to the request of his hostess? Charley turns out to be right, as people start talking halfway through the reprise, but that isn't much of a climax for the scene. I'll bet my life that this is something that happened to Sondheim early in his career or something he saw happen to someone else at a party, and that's why it so speaks to him. But the scene doesn't say or show much about the characters that we really need to know. Frank makes an error of judgment; who hasn't?
Actually, Sondheim and Furth would have been better off if a piece of information they'd already offered at the beginning of the scene had been saved for the end of it. I'm referring to the moment when Gussie tells Frank that she and Joe don't want to do Take a Left, the political musical that he and Charley have written, but they do want to use "Good Thing Going" in a new show they're commissioning. How much stronger the scene would be if, after the pair had sung the song and received such a warm response, Gussie had told them that she wanted the ballad for a great, big Broadway show called Musical Husbands (which sure doesn't sound artistic). If this were the case, the two would face a big decision; but as Merrily now stands, that conversation and conflict happen offstage.
Yet Merrily's theatrical milieu must be one reason why directors love to tackle the show. In Cincinnati, Nick Mangano did a superb job in making the kids age over two decades' time. In 1981, many people felt that the youthful cast members were too callow for their roles. This cast wasn't, and I'm attributing some of that to the fact that almost a quarter-century has passed and kids today are much more savvy about the real world, thanks to cable TV and hundreds of other factors. Darcy Yellin, as the TV interviewer, sure understood what it is to be a star on her own set. Marla Weiner had all the sophistication that any Gussie could ever need, and Jacqui Polk as Beth was the personification of a haimish middle-aged woman in her first-act scenes.
That brings up yet another reason why Merrily We Roll Along has had a such a tough time: It moves chronologically backwards. An audience can be pardoned for expecting that the show they're seeing will move forward, since 99.44% percent of the properties they've experienced in their lifetimes have done just that. As much as I love the title song of Merrily, I wonder if Sondheim made the right choice here. "Rolling along" suggests forward motion, and that's the one thing that this musical never affords us. Lord knows, Sondheim has delivered some great songs by not writing "on the nose": "You Must Meet My Wife" comes immediately to mind, for it's not the type of statement that you expect to hear a man make to his former mistress when he wants to sleep with her again. But a song about "Looking Backward on Life" might have immeasurably helped the Merrily audience to get its bearings.
Meanwhile, we can all look forward to more productions of the show. For all its faults, I would still prefer to see it than plenty of other musicals that ran hundreds if not thousands of times longer.