Merrily We Roll Along
"Mutter mutter mutter mutter quick Jerome, get the president, there's a crazy man on my TV screen!"
- Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
- Book by George Furth
- Directed by Harold Prince
- Orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick
- Choreographed by Larry Fuller
- Musical director: Paul Gemignani
- Produced for records by Thomas Z. Shepard
- Opened 11/16/81 at the Alvin Theatre in New York. Closed after 16 performances.
Franklin Shepard (age 43)
This musical was based on the 1934 Moss Hart/George S. Kaufman play Merrily We Roll Along.
Successful producer and songwriter Franklin Shepard is the guest speaker at the 1980 commencement ceremonies at his old high school, when he was the valedictorian 25 years ago. As the bitter man speaks to the skeptical kids of compromise and practicality, the kids ask him how he went from being the idealistic musician he once was to the cynical businessman he is today. The story then proceeds to move backwards, illuminating key moments in the life of Frank and his former friends, the playwright Charley Kringas and the critic Mary Flynn. We see Frank at a party where he claims to be "rich and happy," but all the partygoers are saying nasty things behind his back; Mary's attempt to get Charley to talk to Frank after two years of animosity; Charley's memorable attack on Frank on national TV; an argument between the three over Frank's plans to become a recording executive; Frank's divorce from his wife, Beth, and the others' attempts to comfort him; the first Broadway hit for Frank and Charley; an earlier party in which Frank is attracted to Gussie, the wife of his agent, and agrees to write music better suited to her tastes than his own; a cheesy revue of Frank and Charley's music, after which Frank proposes to Beth and Mary despairs because she loves him herself; two years in the lives of Frank, Charley, and Mary as they pursue their artistic goals; the trio's exuberance at the promise of the future, epitomized by the appearance of Sputnik in the sky; and, finally, the 1955 commencement ceremonies, in which Frank speaks part of his old valedictory speech.
- The Hills of Tomorrow/Merrily We Roll Along (1980)/Rich and Happy
- Merrily We Roll Along (1979-1975)/Old Friends/Like It Was
- Merrily We Roll Along (1974-1973)/Franklin Shepard, Inc.
- Old Friends
- Not a Day Goes By
- Now You Know
- It's a Hit!
- Merrily We Roll Along (1964-1962)/Good Thing Going
- Merrily We Roll Along (1961-1960)/Bobby and Jackie and Jack
- Not a Day Goes By
- Opening Doors
- Our Time
- The Hills of Tomorrow
Merrily We Roll Along won no Tonys.
- Best Score
With so many better-known Sondheim classics out there, why have I chosen Merrily, a legendary Broadway flop, as the first one to review? For several reasons:
- I resisted getting Merrily for years precisely because it was one of Sondheim's biggest commercial flops, and did I kick myself for waiting so long when I finally got it!
- The score is one of his most accessible and "popular," making it a good introduction to his work for people who are just starting out or who have resisted him because he's too "intellectual" and "cold." (Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit! Sorry, just had to say that.)
- Whatever book problems the show has are completely unimportant to this recording. The score plus the libretto plus the performances tell the story very nicely. (However, one does regret the lack of the interesting-looking dance sequences shown in a series of still photographs--this is one of the very few Sondheim works with significant dancing.)
This score is so good that you'll have a hard time believing that this show only lasted two weeks. There isn't a weak song in the bunch; indeed, Merrily contains some of Sondheim's most beautiful tunes, including "Not a Day Goes By" (one of my favorite Sondheim songs), "Good Thing Going," and "Our Time." It's one of those scores where all the leads get something really good to sing. "Franklin Shepard, Inc." is one of those "ultimate musical theatre" songs, an absolute triumph of musical acting. But while some of the music may be "hummable" (an ironic theme within the musical and, indeed, within Sondheim's own life), it's also subtly complex, with interconnections between the songs. The same theme may be echoed in three or four songs; these are described as "backwards reprises," but they serve a greater purpose than that. The aural similarities take on different emotions depending on their tempo or harmonies or purposes. For example, Frank's hopeful commencement song, "The Hills of Tomorrow," gets reworked into the slow, bittersweet "Good Thing Going" and can also be heard in "Opening Doors" as the jaunty mini-song "Who Wants to Live in New York." The self-congratulatory "Rich and Happy" contains echoes of the youthfully optimistic "Our Time." There are other cross-connections, as well as masterful use of dissonance; this score really rewards frequent and close listening, perhaps more so than any other Sondheim score.
The backwards flow of the book is said to have alienated audiences, but on the CD it adds to the layers of irony in the show. Adult cynicism and bitter experience is slowly stripped away from the characters, but we remember what they're going to become, so that when they finally reach the pureness of "Our Time," the song is both a triumph and a heartbreak. Out of context, it's a wonderfully optimistic song; in context, you wish that the characters could have remained this innocent and wonder at the subtle changes that we all go through over twenty-five years of adult life, and the changing face of friendship.
My only criticisms concern the actual recording. The Mary/Frank version of "Not a Day Goes By" was recorded very badly, with Jim Walton sounding like he was singing in the back of the room while Ann Morrison was up at the mike. And the opening number, where the kids start singing over the older Frank's speech, is confusing and hard to follow, even with the libretto at hand, because Geoffrey Horne keeps talking louder as the song swells. I don't know why they had him talk during the singing; the effect isn't so much creatively dissonant as it is annoying, and I can see how it would have been incredibly annoying on stage. (The same technique would be put to better use during "Good Thing Going," as the song was allowed to play through once without interruption, and only on the replay do the party guests start talking and drown out Frank and Charley altogether--and the song stops, switching over to one of the "connective tissue" "Merrily" choruses, when the two become inaudible. Here, the interruptions mean something to the plot; in the opening song, they seem pointless.)
The performers may have been young at the time (I believe that on the average they weren't much older than me that year, and I was 17), but they're awfully good--of course, they had to be, to create roles in a Sondheim production! Ken Mandelbaum postulates that one of the reasons Merrily flopped was that the cast was too inexperienced to carry a whole musical, and while that may well have been the case during the book scenes, you wouldn't believe it from their performances on the CD.
- No one really receives top billing in this production, but Jim Walton is the obvious head of the cast by dint of his role as Franklin Shepard. I can't fault his performance, and I would love to see him in anything [I may have, actually, if he toured in And the World Goes Round], but I rather wish they'd gotten two leading men who sounded more different from one another. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether he or Lonny Price is singing. If I'd've been in the position of choosing between him and Price, I'd've gone with Price and found a deeper voice for this role. Still, he does an excellent job with his songs ("Rich and Happy" and "Not A Day Goes By" are his main solo pieces, and he has a number of group songs) and a more than adequate job of altering his personality to reflect his character's changing state of mind.
- Ann Morrison has been in a few things since this show flopped, notably a revival of Gershwin's Lady, Be Good!, but has obviously not gotten the roles she deserves, which is a damned shame. She clearly has the musical theatre sensibility: her voice is strong and on-key and sophisticated and full of personality, and she handles a number of difficult songs with ease. The amount of anguish she puts in her rendition of "Not a Day Goes By" is remarkable for someone her age at the time, and she does cynicism quite well.
- What can I say about Lonny Price except, god! I love him! He's the best pure actor of the three leads, he does an unbelievable job with the coolest and hardest solo song ("Franklin Shepard, Inc.") in the show, and he switches emotions almost from note to note. Too bad he didn't do much more as a musical actor (he was in Rags and a few other shows, as well as a couple of movies), but he's been making his mark as a director in the last few years; he directed the 2000 concert version of Sweeney Todd and is currently winning plaudits as the director and lead actor of A Class Act.
- Jason Alexander doesn't have a whole lot to do on this recording, but he's quite suited to the role of a pushy, opinionated New York producer, and he displays more acting ability here than in the entire run of Seinfeld (and no, I did not like that series).
- Sally Klein does a decent job as Beth, though she does force her acting a bit--in her defense, both her songs require a measure of overacting. She holds her own with Walton and Price in "Bobby and Jackie and Jack," and comes off believably in her "debut" in "Opening Doors" as a nervous singer.
- Neither Terry Finn and Geoffrey Horne do more than speak a few lines on the CD. I wasn't impressed with either one.
- She's not discernable on the CD, but Liz Callaway had a tiny role as a cocktail waitress.
Now, this is my kind of booklet! It's got that all-important libretto, which is a necessity for Sondheim recordings; full cast and song lists; a plot summary; a short history of the musical; collages of full-color pictures on the insides of the front and back covers; a big ol' picture of Sondheim on the cover; the Hirschfeld picture beneath the picture of Sondheim and also on the first page of the booklet; B&W pix of Furth and Prince; and a lovely shot of the three principals spotting Sputnik on the back cover. The main criticism I have is that the history of Merrily omits the critical reaction and the subsequent embracing of this score by Sondheim fans. It could also use some background on the actors and actresses, most of whom were entirely unknown when this musical first appeared, and some of whom have since gone on to greater things (notably Jason Alexander and Liz Callaway).
Don't be a schmuck like me; don't make this your last Sondheim acquisition. This goddamn thing is addictive; I've had the songs running through my head for a week now. I loaned it to a 70-year-old friend who likes musicals, and she was blown away by it. It's a hit, it's a hit, it's a palpable hit!
All non-lyric material copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild. All rights reserved
I invite other examples, or comments about the examples above. All submitted material will be properly credited and copyrighted to the submitters. Please see the submissions page for more information.
Or, if you're not in a mood to publish, just let me know your opinion of this page.
Return to Bursting with Song Return to Rational Magic current issue Go back to the Rational Magic home page