Monday, February 20, 2012

Soured Lives: Merrily We Roll Along

Betsy Wolfe, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Colin Donnell, Celia Keenan-Bolger & Adam Grupper in Merrily We Roll Along.

The Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, which was revived over the last two weekends at New York’s City Center by Encores!, flopped on Broadway in 1981, closing in two weeks after receiving punishing reviews. In the intervening decades Sondheim aficionados have struggled to reclaim it as a lost treasure wrecked in the original production by disastrous production decisions. (It ended the partnership of Sondheim and director Harold Prince, who had staged all of his seventies musicals: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd.) The source material is a play of the same name that George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote together in 1934, their second of their half-dozen collaborations and a distinct comedown after their classic hard-boiled comedy Once in a Lifetime. The subject is the ruined friendship of three once-inseparable comrades, a playwright, a painter and a novelist, and the gimmick is that the action runs backwards, beginning when all three are middle-aged and miserable and winding up with a glimpse of who they were when they started out. It’s a terrible play in which almost every one of nine scenes ends with a melodramatic punch, and the reverse flow of the narrative – the idea that drew Sondheim and book writer George Furth to the material nearly half a century later – is intractable. The characters are so dislikable that by the time we discover what bright-eyed idealists they were in their youth we’ve already written them off.

In the musical the protagonists have become Frank Shepard, a composer, Charlie Kringas, his playwright-lyricist collaborator, and Mary Flynn, a novelist turned theatre critic. Their story, looked at chronologically, centers on Frank’s quickness to trade his integrity for the promise of fame and fortune. First he persuades Charlie to put the political musical they’ve put the best part of themselves into on the back burner and write a commercial musical comedy for producer Joe Josephson and his actress wife Gussie Carnegie. Then he coaxes him to help him turn it into a movie. Finally he abandons songwriting altogether to put his name to superficial Hollywood pictures. Meanwhile his personal life is a shambles. His wife Beth, at one time the third member of a satirical revue trio with Frank and Charlie (which Sondheim and Furth may have based on The Revuers, made up of Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Judy Holliday before they all landed on Broadway in the 1940s), divorces him when he begins an affair with Gussie and she gets custody of their little boy. He ends up marrying Gussie but by the time he’s joined the Hollywood elite their relationship is dead, and so is her career. By this time Frank and Charlie no longer speak to each other because of the public trouncing Charlie gave him on a talk show, satirizing his slavish devotion to financial success and his indifference to the creative process that brought them together in the first place. And Mary, at one time a bestselling fiction writer, has become a helpless drunk embittered by a long unrequited passion for Frank that everyone seems to know about but him.

Jim Walton, Ann Morrison & Lonny Price in 1981 (Photo: Martha Swope)
In 1981 the show’s detractors (pretty much everybody) recognized the problem that Furth and Sondheim had inherited from Kaufman and Hart, which was exacerbated by Furth’s knowing ironic tone and his tendency to underwrite his characters. (You can see both qualities in Company, his earlier musical with Sondheim.) The inadequacy of the young cast, who flailed in the early scenes where they were supposed to be playing characters in their forties and had an unpleasant smug canniness in the younger scenes, certainly didn’t help, nor did the visual style of the production, a sort of collegiate version of Brechtianism. (The actors wore colored T-shirts with logos identifying their roles in the story, and the brightly colored set could best be described as nursery minimalism.) The other problem, though, was the Sondheim score, which has since been embraced by his fans. It contains two strong ballads, “Not a Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going,” and the title song, which bridges the backward shifts, is compelling – it gets stuck in your head. Two second-act upbeat numbers, “It’s a Hit!” and “Opening Doors,” are lyrically ingenious, as are parts of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” the song that covers Charlie’s reviling of his friend on national TV. But much of the music is mediocre, and the lyrics mark an unfortunate shift for Sondheim into the kind of banality you’d never caught him stooping to before. Here’s a sample, from the first-act finale, “Now You Know,” in which Frank’s friends, led by Mary, urge him to pick up his life after his divorce:

It’s called what’s your choice?

It’s called count to ten.

It’s called burn your bridges, start again.

You should burn them every now and then

Or you’ll never grow!

Because now you grow.

That’s the killer is,

Now you grow.

Celia Keenan-Bolger, Colin Donnell & Lin-Manuel Miranda
 This phony let’s-get-real approach blights the songs in the second (modern-set) act of Sondheim’s next musical, Sunday in the Park with George (especially “Move On”) and much of Into the Woods (especially “Children Will Listen” and “No One Is Alone”), with its icky, pop-therapeutic approach to fairy tales. And it’s just about the last thing one might have expected from the most accomplished and imaginative Broadway lyric writer since Cole Porter.

There have been several subsequent versions of Merrily We Roll Along. James Lapine directed one at the La Jolla Playhouse in southern California in 1985 that contained several changes effected by Sondheim and Furth, who made more alterations before the musical opened (to great acclaim) in London seven years later. The York Playhouse mounted an off-Broadway production in 1994, directed by Susan B. Schulman, that received laudatory reviews and sold out quickly, but it didn’t improve much on the original. You had to struggle against the urge to throw rotten fruit at the characters (especially self-righteous, self-pitying Mary), and inexplicably the book restored the gaudy last beat of the first scene of the Kaufman and Hart text, discarded by Furth, in which Gussie’s reaction to Frank’s admission that he’s been sleeping with the young star of his latest movie is to throw iodine in her face in the middle of a party following the premiere.

The Encores! version was directed by Lapine, and according to the program notes some of his touches originated in La Jolla. It’s a brilliant production: as I’ve indicated above there are problems inherent in the show that simply can’t be fixed, but Lapine has certainly succeeded in lessening them. A newsreel montage of the years between 1957 and 1976 (when the musical now begins, the frame in which Frank gives a commencement address at his old school having been dispensed with long ago) with the three protagonists woven in provides a sense of who they were and how strong their friendship used to be, so the audience doesn’t have to wait until halfway through the show to find reasons to care about them. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it establishes a tension between past and present and builds in the loss and regret that Sondheim always meant to be the emotional core of the musical.

Elizabeth Stanley and cast (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The entire ensemble is superb, and Lapine has directed them to underscore the humanity in their characters – even Elizabeth Stanley as the ambitious Gussie, who comes across as desperate, not merely opportunistic, and whose affection for Frank feels legitimate. It helps, too, that in this version we see a number from the musical Frank and Charlie write for her, Musical Husbands, so we have some sense of how talented and charismatic she is. (Dan Knechtges has staged the song, which opens the second act, in the style of Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Dolores Gray’s “Thanks a Lot But No Thanks” from It’s Always Fair Weather, both from the mid-fifties. As Stanley performs it, Gussie seems to be solidly in the Dolores Gray category, a more tongue-in-cheek variation on Monroe.) Adam Grupper lays down some real character tracks for the throw-away part of Gussie’s sad-sack producer husband Joe. (He’s quite touching.) As Beth, Betsy Wolfe manages to sidestep the trap in “Not a Day Goes By,” which she sings for the first time just before the end of act one, when she’s suing Frank for divorce. Lovely as it is, the song goes into emotional hyperdrive early on – it turns into a diva turn, the kind of song you expect to find in the next-to-closing spot (what used to be called an eleven o’clock number) – but Wolfe fights to keep it from flying off into melodrama. I’m not crazy about “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” but I can’t imagine anyone performing it better than Lin-Manuel Miranda. And though there’s probably no way to rescue the character of Frank Shepard, whose bad decisions are responsible for almost everything that goes wrong in the three-way friendship as well as in his marriage to Beth, Colin Donnell, who originated the leading role of Billy Crocker in the Broadway revival of Anything Goes (and is currently a semi-regular on the TV series Pan-Am), acts and sings the role with both conviction and tremendous skill.

The real miracle worker in the cast is Celia Keenan-Bolger as Mary. This character is usually infuriating – full of showy put-downs and theatrical self-loathing – and Furth doesn’t do much to show us how she feels about Frank. (When “Not a Day Goes By” is reprised in act two as a duet for Frank and Beth, Mary sings along from across the room; up to then we only know she carries a torch for Frank because other characters say so.) Keenan-Bolger, who is a fine comic and dramatic actress as well as a gifted dramatic singer, underplays Mary’s more brittle lines and emphasizes her heartbreak, less over Frank’s obliviousness to her feelings for him than over the loss of the camaraderie that defined her younger years with him and Charlie.

The production has humor (not just the bitchiness that passed for wit in earlier versions), and some real moments of inspiration, like the choice to give Zachary Unger, the young actor who plays Frank and Beth’s little boy, a solo in one of the reprises of the title song so that we keep in mind that he’s the character worst hit by their marital break-up. This is one of those cases where the intelligence and invention of a revival are so significant that they can almost convince you that the play is the misunderstood gem that so many people want to believe it is. But Merrily We Roll Along is dross. Lapine and his cast can’t transform it, but they can certainly make it shine.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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