january 2018 | Volume 163
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
Jericho Arts Centre, 1475 Discovery St.
Jan. 19–Feb. 11
www.unitedplayers.com or 604-224-8007 ext. 2
Merrily We Roll Along is not one of Stephen Sondheim’s best musicals. George Furth’s book may actually be better than Sondheim’s music and lyrics. There are a few terrific songs but the story itself, which unrolls backwards in time from 1976 to 1957, provides the fascination. It feels like a metatheatrical psychodrama, an alternate version of Sondheim’s own career. Christopher King directs an entertaining United Players production with a cast of 15 and a five-piece orchestra.
The story is about the rise and fall of a New York musical theatre team, composer Franklin Shepard (Scott Walters) and earnest lyricist Charley Kringas (Ian Crowe). The third member of the team is a friend and kind of hanger-on, aspiring writer Mary Flynn (Caitlin Clugston), whose passion for Frank remains unrequited.
When we first meet Frank and Mary in 1976, he’s become a success in Hollywood, she’s a drunk, and Charley and Frank’s partnership has disintegrated. We hear that Charley has written a successful Broadway play and see that Frank’s life has become sordid and superficial. His latest marriage is coming apart and he’s estranged from his first wife, Beth (Alexandra Quispe), and their son, Frank Jr. (Julian Lokash), as well as Charley.
As the scenes roll along backwards, to 1973, 1968, and onwards, the years marked onstage by Corwin Ferguson’s historical projections, we see each stage of the disillusion and cynicism that brought Frank and friends, including their producer, Joe (Matt Ramer), to their current pass. The earliest, most recent scenes are the darkest. The later scenes, earlier in the characters’ lives and careers, are the merriest, ironically shaded by what we know will happen in their future. The last scene, when the three principals first meet in 1957, is so full of idealism and optimism that it’s heartbreaking.
Sondheim’s music is typically unhummable. There’s a great moment in the show when crass, commercial Joe rejects Frank’s music because he can’t seem to write “a tune you can hum!” But here even Sondheim’s usually brilliant lyrics are often missing in action. The exceptions: Charley’s tongue-twister song “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” sung at high speed about Frank’s betrayal of their artistic integrity for the bitch-goddess success; “Now You Know,” the full company number that ends the first act, advice to Frank about how to start over after his bitter divorce; and “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” a really witty song about the Kennedys, sung by Charley, Beth and Frank as part of the musical revue that gets them started in show biz.
The principals all do solid work, but the show-stealer is the bitch-goddess herself, Gussie, a musical theatre diva who is first Joe’s wife, then Frank’s, played with wonderful nasty comic gusto by Amy Gartner. She represents all the temptations that cause all Frank’s wrong turns.
Then there’s the psychodrama. I see Frank (composer) and Charley (lyricist) as the two sides of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Frank follows the path of commercial success while Charley struggles to keep them doing meaningful artistic and political work. (The show he wants them to write is called Take a Left.) Mary writes books, but her career is constantly frustrated, presumably by Frank’s compromises and his failure to respond to her one true (female) love. Charley is his other true love. Together the three of them make a perfect theatrical team (music, lyrics, book), but Frank’s weaknesses prevent that perfection from coming to fruition.
Okay, I know this is cheap pysychologizing, but I found myself awake in the middle of the night after seeing the show, thinking about how successful Sondheim has been both artistically and commercially, but how insecure he might have felt about striking a professional balance between those goals in 1981 when this show first played—and flopped—on Broadway for only 52 performances. I see Merrily We Roll Along as a kind of panicky autobiographical imagining of what might have been, or what might (in 1981) still be for Sondheim, walking the fine line between art and commerce.
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