Meet Frank, a movie producer hosting an opening night party on a terrace off Mulholland Drive. He’s the envy of all, repeatedly tells us he’s happy with his success. His problems. which seem relatively minor, are that his wife has found out about his hot starlet mistress, an old friend of his is so drunk she can’t keep her footing, and there’s a playwright whose name he doesn’t want mentioned. But hell, he’s got a son who’s straight and all this money so . . . we don’t care a bit about him. And the last question in the world we’re asking ourselves is, “How did you get here, Mr. Shepherd?”
George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, now at Encores, based on one of the few Kaufman and Hart plays that wasn’t a success, plays a foolish game with chronology. Time goes backwards, so each scene happens earlier than the one before. Therefore, the creators must always spur at least a passing curiosity, in our minds, about previous steps the characters took. Once this device is established, we know we’re in for a night of revelations: How did that lush begin her affair with the bottle? How did the Hollywood mogul get to his exalted position? What influenced the unseen son to try heterosexuality? And the first problem is, we’re only remotely curious about any of those questions.
A couple posts ago, musing on another Sondheim show, I pointed out the importance of what the main character is doing throughout the evening. Franklin Shepherd, Inc., it turns out, has been a prick for years. We learn he’s a serial adulterer who keeps making business decisions without considering the feelings of his writing partner, Charlie. Realistic, it may be. I’m sure a lot of Hollywood titans made ruthless deals, and bedded a bevy. But musicals are supposed to be entertaining: Watching a prick behave like a prick for three quarters of an evening just isn’t a good use of stage time. If this were a story that moved forward, we might look forward to the prick getting his comeuppance, but, in backwards-land, that’s not going to happen.
I will not spoil the plot, but the final quarter of Merrily, when the characters are young, optimistic, and actually behaving, well, merrily, gets very entertaining. The final two numbers, in particular, stir the heart. It’s been said that if your show starts with a great opening number, you can get away with reading the phone book for the next fifty minutes. Merrily We Roll Along rolls to such a strong conclusion, it has a chance of making the audience forget how bored it was for the better part of its first two hours. I think about those political surveys, where, say, during a debate, they chart, on a moving graph, how viewers are feeling at every moment. Twenty minutes before Merrily We Roll Along ends, if you tap the average audience member on the shoulder, they’d say “I’m hating this.” But twenty seconds before it ends, the reading would be “I’m loving this!”
Merrily We Roll Along was the sixth and last of a string of collaborations between Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince – a more impressive set of musicals it’s hard to fathom, including A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd. By choosing the backwards chronology, they set themselves a very difficult challenge. Why did they choose it? Are musicals created because the creators like to work on puzzles, or are they created to entertain an audience? Master-puzzler Sondheim, and librettist George Furth fail to solve the difficult conundrum of how to tell a story backwards, and the audience is left unsatisfied, puzzled.
A lot of people love Sondheim songs when they hear them out of context. In the context of a book musical, though, we greet songs with certain expectations, one of which is that the song will effectively tie in with the plot, and the set of feelings we’ve developed about a character. So, if you introduce a character and instantly give him a big, emotional song to sing, it’s problematic because, at that point, the audience has nothing invested, emotionally, in the person singing. Prime example: Not a Day Goes By. The song is about the persistent and obsessive nature of a long-standing romantic relationship. In context, it’s sung by a character we’ve just met. So, we’re going “Who the hell is this woman?” It’s way too early for us to care about her, and a pretty song falls flat.
Like the even more convoluted Last Five Years, the authors are victimized by a seemingly-impossible structure. A Kevlar-reinforced paper bag they can’t write their way out of.
It can be done. Many times, over many years, at the ASCAP workshop, Stephen Schwartz has pointed out the brilliant seed-planting in Harold Pinter’s reverse chronology play, Betrayal. In each and every scene, there’s a cryptic reference to something in the characters’ past, and you’re dying to learn what it is. It’s continually satisfying. In Merrily We Roll Along, scene after scene makes you go “What the hell was that?” and “Why are we seeing this?” That’s the real mystery. The question of how Franklin Shepherd became an asshole is not something I care to look into, thank you very much.