Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Merrily We Roll Along, And Along, And Along--But Are We There Yet?

Cast of Encores! Production of 'Merrily We Roll Along.' Photo by Joan Marcus  

Merrily We Roll Along holds a special place in the hearts of many a Stephen Sondheim fan. In most cases, my own included, this emotional connection is tied to the original Broadway cast recording, particularly since productions have been few and far between ever since its unfortunate 16-performance run back in 1981.

Now it’s back, at least for a few performances (ending on Sunday), kicking off the new season of the Encores! series at the newly (and beautifully) refurbished City Center. 

The production has a lot going for it, including solid performances by the hastily-prepared cast and the musicianship of the orchestra—under Rob Berman’s sure hand—playing Jonathan Tunick’s reworked orchestrations (reworked, since some songs have been excised and others added since 1981). 

No matter what one might think of the show itself,  Merrily We Roll Along still has its share of “hummable-mummable” songs, including Old Friends, Not A Day Goes By, and that wonderful ode to youthful optimism, Our Time

Rather than go into the strengths and weaknesses of the Encores! production, however,  I’d like to jump into the debate that has stalked Merrily We Roll Along since its inception.   That is, what went wrong, and have years of tinkering fixed it?

The problems with the original production, which I did not see, have frequently been attributed to the youthfulness and relative inexperience of the cast, needing to play characters who start out as middle aged and go back in time 20 years as the play progresses.  That is the conceit of the show—a backward look at a life of compromises and digressions from the idealism of youth, underscored by a betrayal of marriage and the loss of deeply-rooted friendships. 

I don’t pretend to know how to make it work, but it does seem to me that Merrily We Roll Along takes a huge risk by running its story backwards (as did the not-terribly-successful 1934 Kaufmann and Hart play on which it is based). 

That’s because you’ve got to show a moment of regret at the start, and then ask the audience to hold that thought as you build an emotionally resonating history, so that the viewer will ultimately agree that this has, indeed, been a life worthy of regret. 

You could go the way of Ebenezer Scrooge, I suppose.  However, rather than Dickens, I would suggest that the world of opera—not unheard of in a conversation about Sondheim’s oeuvre—for other models.  

Give us, for example, the beginning of Faust at the front end, and the beginning of La Bohème at the other.   

Unfortunately, instead of Faust—filled with regret near the end of his life—we  have Frankin Shepherd, a man in his 40s, a successful movie producer, whose “crime” is that he veered from a path as a successful writer of musicals in order to pursue other interests. Hardly the stuff of grand tragedy.

And at the other end, we have what we are told is a binding friendship among Frank, Charley, and Mary, and a great love between Frank and Beth. 

But unlike the brilliantly-depicted camaraderie in La Bohème, the relationship among the triumvirate in Merrily We Roll Along is never convincingly significant.  Yes, Sondheim has given us the songs Opening Doors and Our Time to suggest such a deep friendship, but these are generational rather than personal anthems, and we are asked to believe their unbreakable bond is forged in a moment on the roof.  Love at first sight may have worked for West Side Story, but it doesn’t work for Merrily We Roll Along

The same could be said for Frank and Beth’s great love.  A marriage that ends in divorce is unfortunate, but it is rather too common among Frank’s set to be considered a tragic turn of events.  Actually, Frank’s estrangement from his son might be worth pursuing, but it is barely mentioned.

So we have it.  The world has presumably lost a successful composer of musicals, and even if we choose to believe Charley’s contention that “no one does it better,” Frank’s choice of a direction for his life is his to make.  Yet, we see precious little regret coming from him—only from Charley, his former writing partner, and from Mary, who has spent her life mooning over Frank.  It’s a shame, I guess, but it fails to fulfill the promise of the show’s premise. 

And so we have it.  I, for one, will go back to listening to the original cast recording and envisioning a different production of Merrily We Roll Along than the one we have actually been given.

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

'Assistance': What Won't We Do to Inch Up the Ladder of Success?

Virginia Kull and Michael Esper.  Photo by Joan Marcus

Imagine what it would be like if your boss were truly the megalomaniac you think he is.

That is Daniel, the never-seen but always-present world class monster who rules his universe with an iron fist in Assistance, Leslye Headland’s sharply sardonic and scarily funny take on life in the fast lane, being given a near-flawless production at Playwrights Horizons under the keen eye of director Trip Cullman.

Lord knows how Daniel—who has all of the charm of Violet Weston in August:  Osage County and the self-absorption of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada—became so successful at whatever it is he does (we’re never told, but a guess would be that he is a major player in the entertainment industry).  He apparently cannot tie his own shoelaces without the help of an endless parade of personal assistants whom he badgers, goads, humiliates, and tosses away like so many used tissues.

Assistance takes place in Daniel’s headquarters office, where a steady stream of ambitious wannabes play musical chairs among the three desks, tied to their computers and telephones like so many air traffic controllers at the world’s busiest airport.   

These bright, young, self-assured success seekers are like those knights lined up in the fairy tales, where the prize of the princess’s hand in marriage and half the kingdom is up for grabs to the one who can solve the riddle or slay the dragon.  Never mind that the road leading up to the castle is strewn with dead bodies; each is convinced he or she has what it takes to win it all.

It’s hard to know why they stay, what with the low wages, long hours, and constant abuse, but working for Daniel seems to be a great step up the career ladder for the young and ambitious—if conflictedstaffers.   As one of them puts it:  “I hate it here, and I don’t want to leave!”

The play opens with Nick (Michael Esper) and Vince (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) taking phone calls and trading banter like computer wonk buddies at one of those Silicon Valley enclaves.  Vince is delighted to have won his exit pass, a move “across the hall” to some sort of managerial position away from the direct clutches of Daniel.  Nick’s goal, says Vince, should be the same as his was, to find someone who can do the first assistant’s job better than you, so that you will be transferred out.

So Vince moves out, Nick moves up, and in comes Nora (Virginia Kull), whose own personal goal is to be so successful that one day she can take Daniel’s place. 

Nick and Nora form a survival/romantic bond of sorts, and they are joined by three others as the play progresses: Heather (Sue Jean Kim), whose raison d'être is making her parents proud of her; Justin (Bobby Steggert), who lives to make excuses for Daniel’s heinous behavior and hopes he will someday actually please the boss; and Jenny (Amy Rosoff), a cool-as-a-cucumber multi-tasker whom nothing seems to faze. 

There is no through plot in a conventional sense, but there is an inevitable arc to the action, as each character either finds or is pushed through an exit.  And there are few qualms about shoving any of the others under the bus in order to hang on for one more day.   

The vibe is hyperkinetic as things are set spinning out of control.  We can imagine the characters living on triple-shot espressos, energy drinks, and alertness drugs as they work unceasingly to make sure the Great One’s needs are met, no matter the sacrifice.

The dialog throughout is sharp and clever, and presented with rapid-fire flair by a very talented cast indeed.  Mr. Esper, in particular, is magnetic as the always hopeful Nick, expecting at any moment to follow his buddy Vince to that wonderful land “across the hall.”  But all of the others have their moment in the spotlight, and Ms. Rosoff takes it on home at the end with a most magnificent breakdown, for which she and the director must share the credit with the set designer David Korins and choreographer (yes, I said choreographer) Jeffry Denman. 

I have long admired Playwright Horizon’s commitment to nurturing and providing a showcase for new or relatively new playwrights. Assistance joins the winner’s circle with such recent gems as Bathsheba Doran’s Kin, Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, and Adam Bock’s A Small Fire.    

Playwright’s Horizons is offering discount tickets on orders placed by February 21:

Use the code HELPMEBLOG
$40 (reg. $70) for all performances through Feb. 19
$50 (reg. $70) for all other performances Feb 21-Mar 11

Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 Noon to 8PM daily
In Person: Ticket Central Box Office, 416 W. 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues

30&Under Party February 16 following the performance
All non-member tickets $25.  Use code PARTY.  Proof of age required at door.
Order at

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.