Merrily We Roll Along

We made a special trip this week to see the John Doyle directed Merrily We Roll Along at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

Merrily is widely held to be one of Sondheim’s “failures” and we were very interested in seeing it because it was directed by John Doyle, who directed two other Sondheim productions that we loved. Can Doyle crack the difficult nut that is Merrily?


Lindsay: Hello!

Craig and I are here to give a theatrical review of a production that we saw this week, Merrily We Roll Along, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, and directed by John Doyle.

Now, this is a combination which was very important to us, and the reason we actually stopped in Cincinnati – this was at the Cincinnati Playhouse – to see this production.

A.) Sondheim, love it. B.) John Doyle. We have now seen three John Doyle productions – two live, one through Netflix. We saw his Sweeney Todd, Company, and now Merrily We Roll Along. And, he has a very unique approach to producing and directing Sondheim and that is that the actors all play their own musical instruments. It’s a very stripped down, very not low-key but it’s not the big extravaganza that we saw of Follies in the beginning of January with forty people on stage. Merrily only had thirteen.

And it was a very interesting piece. Merrily We Roll Along has always been the problem child in the Stephen Sondheim oeuvre and it was pretty clear to see why for a couple of reasons.

The story is about three friends and about that whole notion of old friends, friendship, how does that endure through the years, and, also, success – the arts, how do we succeed in the arts, how do we hang on to our dreams, or not.

So, Craig, first off, let’s talk about what did you like about this production of Merrily We Roll Along?

Craig: There were a lot of things to like and I loved the stripped down, bare to the core, theatricality of the piece. Any blocking move that was in the play would have not been found in any how-to-block-a-play book. Really against any kind of normal directing techniques but I loved it. It worked really well. The scenes where people were close together, they were far apart on stage. Intimate moments, people were separated.

I, also, not sure I loved it but I was quite fascinated by they edited all of the music to take out the buttons at the end. A button in a piece of music is the “darat-dunt-darant-dunt!” – the part that tells you that now the song is over and it’s time for the audience to applaud. And, at the end of songs, they would just go right back into the dialogue and so there was never a break for the audience to applaud. And I kind of liked that because sometimes applause is a real break in the action of the play and they were clearly trying to move this story along, expeditiously. In fact, they cut it down to a one-act play. It was an hour and 45 minutes long in length and I really loved how expeditiously they tried to tell the story.

The other thing I loved was the design – again, stripped right down. The play is ostensibly about a musical theatre composer and so there really was no set or props on stage. It was just sheets of musical theatre scores – big, big, big stacks of them would become tables and chairs. Any kind of prop was just a musical instrument. Like, a flute became a microphone, a shaker became a drink.

Lindsay: And, in fact, there was only a grand piano and that became a set piece even.

Craig: Yes, even the grand piano that took centre-stage was a set piece and that I loved.

Now, let’s talk about the problems/issues with the play.

Lindsay: Concerns! Concerns!

Craig: What were your concerns?

Lindsay: Here we go!

So, I’m going to talk about the book. So, there’s really two big themes: friendship – how does one sustain friendship? What causes friendships to break up? – and also, the notion of growing up.

Franklin Shepard who is really the lead, it’s sort of banged into his head with a hammer by the other characters, “You know, you’ve got to grow up. You’ve got to grow up. Hey, you’ve got to grow up.” And also, the notion of, as an artist, what are artistic dreams and what do we do – or not do – to hang on to them?

And I hated all three. I thought all three were really approached in the book.

One, it’s not really about friendship. It’s one guy, Franklin, and then, two other characters, Charley and Mary, who are not as well-developed. And, the main guy, Franklin, who was told to grow up over and over again never does, never makes an adult decision. He makes childish decisions, one right after the other, to the point where he is completely unlikeable.

And the notion that our artistic dreams, how we hold on to them, what we’re taught in the book is that you abandon them, you are absent from them, you drink them. There was one little, perhaps, notion at the beginning of the play – because it goes backwards – where we might hear that one of the three has a hit play on Broadway but we wouldn’t know because he isn’t there and the only thing we know about him is a very whiny, bitter tirade that he has in the second scene.

I have to say, the problems that people talk about – the fact that it goes backwards – it has to go backwards. And, the fact that it was played originally on Broadway by kids playing older versions of themselves, having adults playing moving down on age – that didn’t help either.

And I was just completely offended of the notion of, in terms of artistic value, that there’s nobody who’s happy and that nobody gets to be forty and be happy in the arts because that’s what we’re taught in the book of this play, I felt.

All right, Craig. Your turn.

Craig: I didn’t have quite the book problems that Lindsay had. I mean, yes, at the end of the play, or the beginning of the play in this case since it goes backwards. Everything is devastated about their friendship, everything is devastated about their artistic integrity, but I don’t think that the story is meant to be a story about everybody. I think it’s meant to be a story about these people and their development through time.

I think, what it’s meant to be, and the reason that it has to go backwards in time, is that it’s a cautionary tale about the dreams you have as a youth and not allowing outside influences like money and power to take them over because this is what happens. So, just because it happens to these people doesn’t mean that the play is telling us that this happens to everybody. And god, I hope it doesn’t.

But I will place a lot of blame – my issues with the play – on the directing and I’ll tell you why. Because the play goes backwards in time from such a horrible place to what’s supposed to be a place of innocence, I feel that, as we move along from scene to scene back in time, we have to see glimpses of hope and possibility as we travel through the play in increasing amounts so that, by the end of the play, we have a pristine vision of the future that these three kids are sharing as they sit on the rooftop watching Sputnik fly overhead for the first time.

The problem was that that is not what happened, especially the main character. He was a bitter, nasty person from scene to scene to scene to scene to scene, all the way until the very first scene when all of a sudden we were supposed to believe that he was an innocent, naïve youth. And that just never pays. We have to see some kind of evolution in order to believe that there’s a change.

And, what’s really curious is that I think it’s the director and I think the director is not a director who believes in passion and the human spirit. And it works for Sweeney Todd because we’re not asked to believe any kind of sweet, you know, personal emotion in Sweeney Todd. We’re just looking at big, melodramatic archetypes and it works beautifully for that.

His production of Company, likewise, was also devoid of heart but it has its saving grace at the end because it has that brilliant song, “Being Alive,” and I am now crediting Raul Esparza’s performance more than the directing for bringing that all together and giving it such a finale.

Sadly, the final song in this show isn’t as strong and doesn’t bring everything together well enough to justify the nihilism that we’ve been facing throughout the show.

Lindsay: So, the final question is…

Craig: Yes.

Lindsay: Was it worth seeing?

Craig: Absolutely worth seeing. You know, good art is something that makes you talk, and I’ve been thinking about this play for days. I’ve been unable to even talk about it for days because I sat in the theatre only thinking that something was wrong and I couldn’t figure out what it was and it’s taking me a few days to figure it out. So, I’m still going to say that this is a great piece of art. I think there’s still a really good production of Merrily We Roll Along – a definitive production still to come from somebody, maybe it’s you, I hope it is.

Lindsay: A-ha!

Craig: Please invite me.

Lindsay: On that note…

About the author

Craig Mason