Sunday, November 27, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "The Believers and Those Who Have Lost Faith (on George Furth's and Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along)

the believers and those who have lost faith
by Douglas Messerli

George Furth (book, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart), Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) / 1981 / the versions I saw were from 2010, at Crossley Terrace Theatre at the First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood and the production on Saturday, November 27, 2016 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts/Bram Goldsmith Theater

Howard and I first saw Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical, revised from a version of Off-Broadway in 1994, at the Crossley Terrace Theatre at the First Presbyterian Church in  Hollywood in 2010. I remember it as a very pleasant amateur production with a small, somewhat difficult-to-hear combo playing from off stage. One of the local Los Angeles reviewers, Philip Brandes, described it as “Making the most of modest resources, a heartfelt, committed revival from Actors Co-op,” which “shows why this under-appreciated Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical has steadily risen in stature since its initial commercial failure….” Other local reviewers equally praised it.
        Inexplicably, Howard does not recall our attending it, but I remember several of its excellent songs, including “Not a Day Goes By” and the musical’s final number which—since the play moves backward from 1976-1957—is actually the first sentiments of the work’s three major characters, a lovely song of the belief in their futures, “Our Time,” which expresses the hopes of every generation, this witnessing the New York flyby of the Russian satellite, Sputnik.  “Old Friends,” the funny-angry song “Franklin Shepard, Inc,” “It’s a Hit,” and “Good Thing Going” were also among the musical’s high points. But I also recall that both Howard and I were startled by a work, based on a 1934 play by the famed writing team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, which expressed such clear cynicism. Probably because I had already spoken, in several pieces of Sondheim’s dark cynicism in other works, I chose not to review the piece that year. And, “as the days go by,” I’m happy now that I didn’t comment on it in the 2010 volume.
     For now—having just come away from the wonderfully produced and marvelously acted and sung version, directed by Michael Arden for the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills—I realize just how wonderfully theatrical Sondheim’s and Furth’s musical is, despite the cynicism it expressed for its lead character Franklin Shepard (Aaron Lazar), who falls into the spider’s web of singer-lover Gussie Carnegie (Saycon Sengbloh), that the other central figures had, in fact, retained their faith in the future, even if, in the very first scene, Franklin’s friend Mary Flynn (Donna Vivino)—who gets incredibly drunk at the Hollywood party to celebrate the clearly mediocre movie he has just produced—so berates his hangers-on that she will never again be allowed to be in Franklin’s presence, just as his other “old friend,” Charley Kringas (the truly marvelous Wayne Brady) has previously been banned. By the end of this first scene, the last in the musical’s chronology, Franklin, having now been abandoned by his second wife, Gussie, is left alone with no one but himself to help him understand how seriously he has fucked up his life.
      Over the course of 20 years of particular scenes—in the musical’s backward scenario, from 1976. 1973, 1968, 1966, 1964, 1960, 1959, and 1957—we watch the gradual devolution of Frank from a dreamer about creating serious music (the only thing he’s really good at) to a  man who cheats on his first wife, Beth, and later his second wife, Gussie, and is willing to give up almost all of his formerly challenging concepts for mediocre projects that produce money but offer little intellectual or spiritual challenges. Those who most loved him, one by one, are forced to admit his hollow core, and do so in quite painful terms, particularly in Charley’s on-TV interview—in another highly embarrassing moment for Franklin—“Franklin Shepard, Inc,”—and, after the first scene breakdown, in Mary’s own rendition of “Not a Day Goes By” (sung oddly enough—while making it utterly apparent that Mary has perhaps a deeper love for him that his fiancĂ©e—as a trio between Franklin and his new wife, Beth). In almost every step along the way, Franklin, because of his selfishness, inner greed, and lack of true feeling, makes the wrong decisions—winding up with all the praise of his fawning “blob” mob peers and lots of money, but with no self-respect; while the formerly diminished Charley, whose last name their first producer, Joe Josephson  (Amir Talai) cannot even remember, receives a Pulitzer Prize for his plays—the writer’s not very believable symbol for true recognition of talent; and, even if she can no longer write, Mary had, at least, a best-selling novel—equally non-convincing, but again a symbol for the audience to perceive that she has talent. In short, for all Franklin’s financial success, by play’s end (represented in the work’s beginning) he has very little to show for all of his wonderful dreams, for which everyone previously loved him.
       To stitch all of these various “scenes” together, Sondheim—always a genius with ensemble pieces—creates a series of “transitions” with songs such as the title work, “Merrily We Roll Along” and the “Blob” songs, as well as numerous repetitions and reprises. Today, particularly, in a grandly produced production such as this one, with full sets (a maybe overly-busy representation of numerous bulb-lit actor’s mirrors and larger mirrors which reiterate both the theater world and the self-consciousness involved with those portrayed) and a wide range of believable costumes (both by Dane Laffrey) I finally realized just how innovative Sondheim’s musical was in 1981, when it bombed after 16 performances (more about that below). As director Arden wrote in the program: “

        I think they [Sondheim and Furth] wrote this musical a little before 
        its time because I can’t imagine anyone having a hard time following
        it now. If anything, Merrily provides us an opportunity for reflection.

        I have a history of tearing up whenever I see what I might describe as a near-perfect musical. The great acting and singing of these actors, particularly given the various trajectories in which the plot took them from their earliest dreams and imaginations, left me with very few moments of dry eyes, and sometimes, embarrassingly—but I still proudly admit—I even had to control an occasional sob. As I’ve often written, when it comes to the American musical, I am a true sentimentalist—particularly when comes to any musical from 1940-1960, and any Sondheim musical after.
        And this time round, Merrily We Roll Along seemed not simply cynical, but a story of moral precaution. One can chose, with careful thinking and emotional response, which way to go; and, particularly with the collaboration of friends, one can devote one’s life to the more complex and difficult, instead of giving into the demands of those who find that music and art have to be “hummable” and simply popular in order to, as Gussie puts it, “get what you want.” The continued “question” of ensemble members, “how did I get here?” is absolutely made clear in Sondheim’s and Furth’s lucid work. Whether or not Franklin will be ever able to perceive that answer is open to question, but by the time the musical finishes, revealing his former glorious belief in his own generation, we no longer care, for he has desperately failed to live up to his own dreaming.

Los Angeles, November 27, 2016

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