Wednesday, November 16, 2011
It started out like a song… (An appreciation in two acts)
By Edward Copeland
…when Merrily We Roll Along opened on Broadway 30 years ago tonight at The Alvin Theatre — or at least it should have. Unfortunately, despite having one of Stephen Sondheim's most gorgeous scores, the musical closed 16 performances later on Nov. 28. The musical tallied 52 previews beginning Oct. 1, 1981, before its official opening at The Alvin (which would lose the name the theater had held since 1927 two years later when rechristened The Neil Simon Theatre). Merrily wasn't the shortest Broadway run of any Sondheim show (that title belongs to 1964's Anyone Can Whistle, which closed after 12 previews and nine performances) but Merrily marked the last collaboration on a new musical between the legendary composer with the revered director/producer Harold Prince serving as director, a teaming that began with 1970's Company and continued through Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd. The union won Prince five of his Tony Awards, gave Tonys to Sondheim for four of those scores (including an amazing three wins in a four-year span) and three best musical winners. However, Merrily contained too great a score to let it go gentle into that good night and the show (and its composer) raged against the dying of that musical's light and its label as a disaster. As soon as four years later, a key revision of Merrily, directed by James Lapine at The La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, Calif., began the show's rehabilitation and it has had frequent tinkering, revisions and revivals in the decades since (and I'm relying on reports and reviews), fixing many of its underlying structural problems and raising its stature in the Sondheim canon. Encores! at City Center in New York will present a two-week concert performance of Merrily in February (again directed by Lapine), but the musical remains one of only three Sondheim shows yet to receive a Broadway revival — the other two being his last original Broadway work, 1994's Passion (but it won best musical, so that'll happen eventually), and Anyone Can Whistle (but no one has spent much time trying to salvage that one). If you aren't familiar with the story in Merrily We Roll Along, it is told backwards, which tends to get a big chunk of the blame for its problem. All I know is that every work I've seen that tells its tale in reverse — be it Harold Pinter's Betrayal, Christopher Nolan's Memento or even the backward episode of Seinfeld (titled "The Betrayal") — turns out well. I've never been fortunate enough to see a production of Merrily live to judge for myself, but damn I love that score so while this day marks the anniversary of a short Broadway run, I'm still taking the opportunity to use it to celebrate Merrily We Roll Along anyway, its initial reception be damned. (Pictured at top, the original Charley Kringas, Mary Flynn and Franklin Shepherd. From left, Lonny Price, Ann Morrison and Jim Walton)
In Sondheim's great book Finishing the Hat (which is essential reading for both Sondheim fans and writers in general. I've never written a song in my life, but people who practice prose could learn just as much from Finishing the Hat as songwriters), the composer describes the "notion" of Merrily We Roll Along as follows:
Franklin Shepard, a successful songwriter and movie producer in his 40s, reviews his life, both professional and personal, especially his relationships with his best friends, Mary Flynn and Charley Kringas (his songwriting collaborator), and his two wives, Beth and Gussie. The action moves backward in time from 1981 to 1957.
Actually, for me to accurately tell the beginnings of Merrily We Roll Along, I have to go backward in time as well. Merrily's writing took place in 1980 when Sondheim and Prince conceived the idea of making a musical (with actor-writer George Furth, who died in 2006, writing the book as he had done for the team's Company, for which he won a Tony) out of the 1934 play Merrily We Roll Along by George S. Kaufman (seen at typewriter in photo below) and Moss Hart (at right in same photo). It was the second effort from the famous playwriting team who had scored with their first collaboration, Once in a Lifetime, and would go on to write such classics as the Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can't Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner. Kaufman and Hart's version of Merrily, while not considered a flop on the level of the musical version, was deemed a disappointment when compared to Once in a Lifetime, which ran at The Music Box Theatre for two years and 406 performances. Merrily followed it into The Music Box, but lasted only 155 performances, which would be labeled neither a flop nor a disaster except for how expensive the production was to stage: It had a cast of 55 actors. Among that ensemble were eventual recognizable movie and TV character performers such as Walter Abel, Kenneth MacKenna, Mary Philips and Jessie Royce Landis as well as Doris Eaton, who was the last surviving Ziegfeld girl until her death in May 2010 at 106. The main story differences in the play (other than character names) is that their lead character (MacKenna, at right in photo below) is a successful playwright of popular comedies instead of a composer and film producer and his friend is a painter (Abel in photo below) instead of a lyricist. His platonic female friend remains a writer, though she's patterned after Dorothy Parker here. Obviously, the time span, while still running backward, covers different years, starting in 1934 and ending in 1916. Reviews were mixed and sometimes funny, as the words of Herman J. Mankiewicz, who would go on to co-write Citizen Kane, wrote, "Here's this playwright who writes a play and it's a big success. Then he writes another play and it's a big hit too. All his plays are big successes. All the actresses in them are in love with him, and he has a yacht and a beautiful home in the country. He has a beautiful wife and two beautiful children and he makes a million dollars. Now the problem the play propounds is this: How did the poor son-of-a-bitch get in this jam?"
Obviously, neither Hal Prince nor Stephen Sondheim saw a production of the Kaufman/Hart play, let alone the original. Unlike the playwriting duo's other works, Merrily never received a Broadway revival and wasn't that well known. Prince and Sondheim were considering projects after the astounding success of their last production, Sweeney Todd. According to the biography Sondheim: A Life by Meryle Secrest, Prince's wife Judy suggested that their next show be about young people. Her husband tried to think of appropriate works such as Thornton Wilder's Our Town, but rejected them. "Then one morning as he was shaving," Secrest wrote, "he recalled Merrily, in which his former producing partner Robert Griffith, had once played a small part. It seemed like the perfect solution. Prince immediately called Sondheim. Prince said, 'It was the first time he ever said yes on the phone.'" Stephen Citron elaborates further on the appeal to Prince in his book Sondheim & Lloyd-Webber: The New Musical, repeating the story Secrest tells that he recalled the play while shaving particularly "that the play had ended with Polonius' advice to his son, 'This above all, to thine own self be true,' which was one of the messages he wanted the musical to deliver. He knew at once the framework of this play could be bent to serve his purpose — to cast young people in the major roles — and give him a platform to say what he wanted about the disillusioning events of the last 25 years." The Kaufman/Hart play had the similar idea except the defining event of their time was the Great Depression. "Kaufman and Hart had wanted to write about the deterioration of idealism and the rise of American greed in what they called the "heedless years" which followed World War I until the Depression," Sondheim wrote in Finishing the Hat. "In fact, their original title for the play was Wind Up an Era. In our transposition, we were writing about a generation's idealistic expectations for the future, symbolized by the launch of Sputnik, and their deterioration into compromise and deceit, exemplified by Nixon and Watergate, and culminating in The Me Decade, as the 1970s came to be called." Perhaps given that basic crux of an idea, Merrily arrived 30 years too soon. Granted, I was a youngster during Watergate through Reagan's election (albeit an odd one who actually knew and paid attention to these events in grade school), but I'd pick the past decade as a time that truly captures disillusionment, the death of idealism and a rise in avarice that would make those labeled greedy in Kaufman and Hart's era drop their collective jaws at Wall Street's audacity and avarice as well as the partisan clashes for control that prioritize political power above the nation's economic welfare. As I write this, the evening news reports on more standoffs between the Occupy protests that have spread across the land and the police, including the suicide of a demonstrator. Merrily, we do not roll along. Sondheim also notes in his book that in the rehearsal script for Merrily We Roll Along, the "Transitions" included references to events that occurred in the years being covered, but those lyrics were cut prior to the opening. "As the show took shape, it became clear that the 'Transitions' should reflect Frank's history, not the country's," Sondheim wrote. The composer also found the reverse chronology intriguing, writing in the same book: "If the songs were conventional, telling the story backwards suggested something unconventional: the possibility of reversing the usual presentation of them.…The structure of Merrily We Roll Along suggested to me that the reprises could come first: the songs that were important to the characters when they were younger would have different resonances as they aged; thus, for example, "Not a Day Goes By," a love song sung by a hopeful young couple getting married, becomes a bitter tirade from the wife when they get a divorce, but the bitter version is sung first in the musical's topsy-turvy chronology." To illustrate what Sondheim means, the first link is to "Not a Day Goes By (Part I)" from the 1994 York Theatre Company production of the show. The character of Beth, Frank's first wife, (played by Anne Bobby) sings in Act I. The second link is "Not a Day Goes By (Part II)" from Act II of the same production. It's also sung by Bobby as Beth joined by Malcolm Gets as Frank and Amy Ryder as Mary.
As I mentioned earlier, the writing of Merrily We Roll Along was mostly complete in 1980 — or so they thought. Things had moved along enough that the casting process took place and, keeping with Prince's idea, they cast talented newcomers with little experience. One of those lucky newcomers who made her Broadway debut in Merrily We Roll Along was Liz Callaway (seen at left in photo below at 2002 reunion of original cast with Tonya Pinkins, middle, and Donna Marie Elio). "It was incredible making my debut in a Sondheim/Prince show because the first Broadway show I ever saw was Company. I think I was 9 or 10 years old," she told me. In fact, of the 27 performers listed in the opening night cast on the Internet Broadway Database, all but seven were making Broadway debuts and 12 of those 27 never appeared on Broadway again. However, it was a long journey from casting to opening night. Callaway would later receive a Tony nomination for featured actress in a musical for Baby and appear in the original cast of Miss Saigon. In Merrily, she was cast as a nightclub waitress and was the understudy for Ann Morrison's role of Mary Flynn. "After we were cast, they announced we were postponing rehearsals for nine months," Callaway told me. Meryle Secrest wrote in her Sondheim biography that the delay in rehearsals were because Sondheim hadn't finished the score and that's what pushed them to September 1981. Also weighing on his composing, according to Secrest's book, was Hal Prince's insistence that Sondheim needed to write a popular score again. Secrest wrote: "Obviously, 'Send in the Clowns' was a very successful song, but the score was not that type of score. In this show, we've got the Sinatra record and the Carly Simon record, and my mother can sing the songs first time out, so that makes her happy." Prince was referring to the fact that, although the show had not yet opened, Sinatra had recorded one of its songs, "Good Thing Going," and Simon had recorded another, "Not a Day Goes By." Sondheim wrote in Finishing the Hat, "Of all the shows I worked on Merrily We Roll Along was, with the possible exception of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (and for similar reasons), the most difficult score to write. With Forum, however, I didn't have to worry about holding the score together — the piece didn't require cohesion, only variety." When rehearsals did start and they eventually got to the lengthy month of previews, even more changes ensued. "Yes, there were tons of changes, including replacing the leading man and choreographer. We postponed the show several times," Callaway said. Another original cast member, Tonya Pinkins, described the constant changes during the rehearsal and preview process as a "trial by fire." Pinkins would next appear on Broadway in 1992 in Jelly's Last Jam with Gregory Hines and win the Tony for best featured actress in a musical. She also received Tony nominations for lead actress in a musical for Play On! and Caroline, or Change? In Merrily, she played Gwen Wilson, who Pinkins characterized as "a Hedda Hopper type" and was one of many characters that were changed or revised in later incarnations of the show. Of those seven actors with previous Broadway experience, one had been in four previous Broadway musicals dating back to 1968 — when he was 10. He hadn't been on Broadway since 1973 when he co-starred in the musical Seesaw with a score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields. It was directed, choreographed and written by Michael Bennett and earned seven Tony nominations, and won two, one for Bennett's choreography and another for Tommy Tune's featured performance. After that show, Giancarlo Esposito didn't return to Broadway until Merrily We Roll Along at the ripe old age of 23 in the role of the valedictorian, another character that would vanish in revisions since the original Merrily started with Franklin Shepherd giving the commencement address at his former high school, prompting the look back at his life. Since Merrily had a short run, Callaway didn't get to go on for Morrison in the role of Mary after it opened, something she remains grateful didn't occur. "No, thank God. I wouldn't have been good. I did get to sing for Annie Morrison at some of the rehearsals during previews when she got sick. I think in some ways that was my audition for future work I would do with Sondheim," Callaway told me. In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim wrote that the month of previews "was a painful month spent under the gimlet eyes of theatrical vultures…a month that saw George (Furth, seen at left) and I busily rewriting, Hal busily restaging, the leading actor and choreographer being replaced — in short, all the showbiz chaos I had seen and thought I'd envied in movies. Worse, we fell victim to the age-old illusion that blinds all rewriters: by the time opening night arrived, we thought we'd fixed the show. What we'd done was bettered it, not fixed it." By stroke of luck, a future lyricist and musical book-writer happened to be working at Studio Duplicating at the time and got to type the original Merrily script, once they settled on one. Bill Russell, who received Tony nominations for his book and lyrics for the 1998 musical Side Show, recalls, "I called my boyfriend and said, 'This is going to be such a hit.' Then we saw the show in previews. What had jumped off the page did not jump off the stage. Reading that someone is 'pushed into the swimming pool' was much more exciting in my imagination than the sad effect of someone falling through paper 'water.' Still, the score really stood out." That was before the theater critics weighed in — and, more importantly, its resurrection began.
The reviews tended not to be favorable. Some were downright harsh. Arguably the most powerful theater critic at the time, Frank Rich of The New York Times, had the perception of being an unabashed Sondheim admirer, but the lead of his review read, "As we all should probably have learned by now, to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one's heart broken at regular intervals. Usually the heartbreak comes from Mr. Sondheim's songs — for his music can tear through us with an emotional force as moving as Gershwin's. And sometimes the pain is compounded by another factor — for some of Mr. Sondheim's most powerful work turns up in shows (Anyone Can Whistle, Pacific Overtures) that fail. Suffice it to say that both kinds of pain are abundant in Merrily We Roll Along, the new Sondheim-Harold Prince-George Furth musical that opened at the Alvin last night. Mr. Sondheim has given this evening a half-dozen songs that are crushing and beautiful — that soar and linger and hurt. But the show that contains them is a shambles." He also picked up on what he saw as the major problem that many saw — asking younger performers to play older, though his take was its contrast to Follies. Rich wrote, (Follies) also used the effective trick of assigning each major character to two actors, one middle-aged and one young, so that past and present could interweave at will to potent effect. With one passing exception, the roles in Merrily are always played by young actors, no matter what the characters' ages or how high the toll in cuteness." However, Rich would re-examine the show himself as its road to redemption took place. Unbelievably, Douglas Watt reviewing at New York Daily News actually bashed the score. He wrote, "…it would be unthinkable for Sondheim not to come up with at least one sound ballad, as in 'Good Thing Going (Going Gone),' but the score is for the most part pallid…" Watt couldn't even get the song title correct. Later, he disappeared and reportedly changed his name to Frank Wildhorn. (Just kidding.) Many of the reviews beat up on Kaufman and Hart almost as much as Furth, Prince and Sondheim. One notable exception among theater critics was the late Clive Barnes at The New York Post. "Whatever you may have heard about it — go and see it for yourselves. It is far too good a musical to be judged by those twin kangaroo courts of word of mouth and critical consensus. It is the story of success, the complexities of compromise, and life lived amid quicksands. It also has that surging Sondheim sound that is New York set to music," Barnes wrote. Even within Barnes' praise though, he saw casting inexperienced newcomers as a flaw. "One difficulty the production did not solve to my entire satisfaction was that of the cast and its aging. From beginning to end, through this entire backward gauntlet race of a Silver Jubilee, the age of the cast scarcely varied," Barnes wrote. In Finishing the Hat, even Sondheim admits that their concept of casting young performers — which included Prince's 16-year-old daughter Daisy as Meg, Shepherd's impending third wife — and expecting them to be able to play the characters' older selves was the biggest flaw. "Whatever the flaws the show may have had to begin with, the original production compounded the felonies. Hal and I had conceived our treatment of the Kaufman-Hart play as a vehicle for young performers. In 1934, the play had been cast with actors in their 20s and 30s who played slightly older than themselves at the start and slightly younger at the finish," Sondheim wrote. "What we envisioned was a cautionary tale in which actors in their late teens and early 20s would begin disguised as middle-age sophisticates and gradually become their innocent young selves as the evening progressed. Unfortunately, we got caught in a paradox we should have foreseen: actors that young, no matter how talented, rarely have the experience or skills to play anyone but themselves, and in this case even that caused them difficulties. (The singular exception was a remarkable performer named Jason Alexander, who at 21 seemed like an old pro: It was as if he'd been born middle-aged.)" Alexander, who played a George Abbott-like producer named Joe Josephson received positive mention in almost every review, no matter how negative overall.
So after the nine-month delay before starting rehearsals, the 52 previews with all those changes and 16 performances, Merrily We Roll Along closed. "It was very depressing to have the show close after we had worked so hard and waited so long to do the show," Liz Callaway told me. Callaway and Tonya Pinkins both agreed that while working so hard on a show that closed so quickly was disappointing, it was the perfect introduction to their chosen profession. "I will say I think it some ways it was the ideal first Broadway show experience," Callaway said. "To work with the best and have it not be successful prepared me for what a career in the theater would be." Pinkins said, "It was an amazing experience…to work with the gods of theater." Callaway added that the morning after the show closed, "we recorded the cast album. You can imagine how bittersweet that was." The curtain didn't just fall for good on the first production of Merrily in November 1981: The partnership of Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince came to an end as well, though neither has ever discussed particulars. However, the story of the musical doesn't end here. It has many stops to make and new passengers to pick up during the next three decades. I've never written a play, but I've seen enough to know you should end Act I with the audience wanting to come back to see how it wraps up. I'll spoil some of my own piece — its ending could be called a happy (or at least hopeful) one and there will be more notable cameos from people associated with the show. Remember — don't take your drinks back to your seat.