Friday, January 25, 2013

Merrily We Roll Along: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Dear Muse,

My first reaction to Sondheim's 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along (when I listened to it a few weeks ago) went something like this:

The same weekend I listened to Sondheim's later show Sunday in the Park With George, and at the time I thought both music and story were infinitely better. (I'll write more about that in the next post.) But now that I've listened to Merrily We Roll Along again, I'll admit that it does have some good songs, and catchier numbers than those in Sunday in the Park With George

For starters, let's examine Merrily We Roll Along's premise. Based on the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it's a story about three friends - Frank Shepard, Mary Flynn, and Charley Kringas - who drift apart and become very unpleasant people. The story goes backwards (kind of like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), starting in the "present day" of 1976 and gradually working back to 1957. We start by seeing the three at their worst, and end by seeing them before the corruption, lies, betrayal, disillusionment and separation; at the peak of idealistic youth. 
And here's where the problem lies. The first songs reflect how embittered and empty Frank, Charley and Mary's lives have become by the present day, so the first songs sound discordant and ugly. They get better as the story ticks backward toward more idyllic days, but halfway through you're so sick and tired of the jarring numbers that you can't appreciate the nicer melodies.

(I'm guessing that most people who heard it in 1981 felt exactly the same - that's why it only ran for 16 performances.) 

Despite my initial disgust with the musical, I decided to give it a second chance. This time, I knew better than to sit through the whole thing: I listened to the last pieces first. And you know what? I enjoyed Merrily We Roll Along much more. 

The first really pleasant song in the show (in my personal opinion) is "Good Thing Going." Then "Not a Day Goes By (reprise)," "Opening Doors," and the penultimate number, "Our Time." (I would count "Now You Know," but I prefer the cover version from Sondheim on Sondheim to the original version in Merrily.)

  • "Not a Day Goes By (reprise)" sounds kind of like something out of Sondheim's earlier Follies, but Mary's part sounds like something Katy Perry would sing in her music video "The One That Got Away." Very poignant; very sad. 

  • "Opening Doors": here's a song that college grads/ young adults in the job market can familiarize with! (But the fast-paced and jumbled verses echo those from "A Weekend in the Country" in Sondheim's A Little Night Music...)

  • "Our Time" is the sweetest song in the entire musical. Picture if you can: the three young protagonists (just out of college, full of big dreams and shining optimism) holding hands, looking up at Sputnik arcing through the sky, while they sing this...

Fortunately, people eventually recognized the beautiful music in Merrily We Roll Along, buried beneath layers of "scraping-fingernails-on-the-blackboard" rot. I encourage you to compare Frank Rich's damning original 1981 musical review to Charles Spencer's review or Ben Brantley's review from last year, before you sign off. 
                                                                                                                                                   Source: via Ariel on Pinterest


                                                                      Tomorrow: another Sondheim post!

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