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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