“Merrily We Roll Along” Opens on Broadway (in 1934)

Fans of Stephen Sondheim in Toronto were disappointed back in February when it was announced that the Crow’s Theatre/ YES Theatre co-production of Merrily We Roll Along had run into financial problems which forced the show’s cancellation. The production had been eagerly anticipated here after a very successful (pre-pandemic) run at YES Theatre, a small company in northern Ontario dedicated to producing musicals. 

It was directed by Mitchell Cushman, whose track record with the works of Stephen Sondheim is impressive, most recently evidenced by the success of his immersive, site-specific production of Sweeney Todd (produced by Talk is Free Theatre) that toured to Buenos Aires and played for one week at Timbre 4, a theatre in the artsy working class barrio of Boedo, long known for its culturally progressive history. A person close to the production noted that “the Argentinians cheered the actors like it was their favorite soccer team.” Given Cushman’s signature directorial style, I’m sure the separation between audience and performer was razor-thin.

For those keeping track, bragging rights for the last time MWRA was very successfully produced in Toronto would go to former Toronto Star theatre critic, Richard Ouzounian, who directed the show at Sheridan College in 2013.

As a not too shabby consolation prize, the sold-out revival of the Stephen Sondheim/ George Furth musical directed by Maria Friedman, that received rave reviews when it opened at the New York Theatre Workshop last December, is now transferring to Broadway (currently in previews at the Hudson Theatre with an opening set for October 10th.)

The musical is based on a dramatic play written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. While reading the gushing reviews of the NYTW production, I saw several perfunctory references to the Kaufman-Hart play (often erroneously conflating the drama with the musical) that made me wonder if the reviewers had ever read it. After all, it was the wellspring from which this whole project sprang when Harold Prince got together with his favorite collaborator, Stephen Sondheim, and approached the estates of both playwrights in order to ask if they might do a musical adaptation of the drama.

But there are big differences between the drama by Kaufman and Hart that opened on Broadway in 1934 and the Sondheim-Furth musical that opened in 1981 and closed after only 16 performances, quickly becoming one of the most storied flops in Broadway musical history, earning its poster a spot on the wall of Joe Allen Restaurant that celebrates Broadway’s most notable failures.

The scholar, theatre critic, and anthologist, John Gassner, wrote: “Among the more significant writers, George S. Kaufman, with his numerous collaborators Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, Moss Hart and others, achieved a veritable compendium of American trends. Since 1921, he has responded to nearly everything in American life, from its pleasant private vagaries to political mismanagement and to the serious threat of fascism.” 

Although Kaufman’s overarching goal was to pull Americans out of their (the) depression and give them a good laugh, he did have his serious side. Merrily We Roll Along is a play that questions the commodification of art and weighs the difference between non-monetizable values such as friendship and commitment against the aggressive pursuit of personal wealth and fame. It was a theme that Kaufman had visited a decade earlier in Beggar on Horseback with Marc Connelly. The American Way, produced in 1939 and also written with Moss Hart, portrays the growth of a white supremacist movement within the American heartland.

But let’s not put the end before the beginning – which is exactly what Merrily We Roll Along does as it traces the lives of its three main characters in a story that works backwards chronologically over a period of two decades, from 1934 to 1916. For our purposes here, I’ll start at the beginning and work toward the present.

In the Beginning

Production flyer courtesy Wikepedia Commons/ Library of Congress

Merrily We Roll Along, the play, is quite a benchmark with regard to serious drama produced on Broadway. First of all, there was the sheer size of the show, certainly the most extravagant ever staged at the Music Box Theatre. It called for a whopping ninety-five actors in the cast which included forty dress extras to fill out the crowd scenes as partygoers, restaurant diners, courtroom paparazzi, and a full fledged college graduation scene that concludes the play. The curtain call had actors packed in four rows deep. 

The scene design by Joe Mielziner provided settings for nine scene changes, among them a Long Island country home, the corridors of a New York city courthouse, a cold-water flat, an upscale hotel suite/ apartment, a chichi restaurant (perhaps a stand-in for the Russian Tea Room), a park and a college chapel that is used for a graduation ceremony in the play’s final scene.

I have no idea what it cost to put this show on Broadway in 1934, but it was a lot of money then and it would be quite a lot of money today. Steven Bach, the author of the Moss Hart biography, Dazzler (The Life and Times of Moss Hart) quotes Brooks Atkinson writing in the New York Times who said the play gave the American theatre “stature.” Up until then the two playwrights had been known mostly for their comedies. “After this declaration of ethics, it will be impossible to dismiss Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Hart as just clever jesters with an instinct for the stage,” Atkinson wrote.

Due to the large running costs of the show, it never made a profit and it has never received a revival on Broadway. It was only because MGM purchased the movie rights to the play that it eventually broke even financially although the film version was never made. The show closed after a respectable run of 155 performances.

A short gloss on the storyline involves three struggling artists; the playwright, Richard Niles and his two best friends from college days, Julia Glenn, a writer, and Jonathan Crale, a painter. A whole host of recognizable sidebar New York theatre scene characters make up the rest of the cast including a crooner named Val Burnett and a pianist named Sam Frankl (stand-ins for Rudy Vallee and George Gershwin, respectively).

The three main characters are products of their time and place. After the signing of the Armistice that concluded World War I in 1918, soldiers began returning home and the young Richard Niles, who enters in uniform, professes his love for Helen Murney, the woman who he was in love with before he went away to war and now wants to marry. Helen responds with perfervid ardor: “All that day the armistice was signed I just kept saying, “Richard is safe now,” “Richard is safe now” – over and over again.”

But storm clouds soon scud the horizon as the struggling playwright is forced to move in with his in-laws, who have little sympathy with a poor, son-in-law writing socially conscious plays (think Clifford Odets here). On one occasion, Julia and Jonathan stop by to see their old friend on their way to a rally to hear the socialist labour leader, Eugene Debs give a speech. Richard would like to go but Helen has no interest in attending.

The rest of the plot involves the well-worn trope of a Faustian bargain that sees commercial success come to the eager arriviste, Richard, by way of his plays on Broadway that have gone from politically committed to politely comedic. He cheats on his wife, Helen, and becomes involved in an extra-marital affair with the Broadway star, Althea Royce, who goes through men the way she does scripts. When she finds a good one (a script, that is) she begins an affair with the playwright always looking for her next hit show. In the play’s opening scene, Althea’s jealously over Richard leads her to throw a bottle of iodine into the eyes of a younger actress with whom Richard is having an affair.

Meanwhile, Julia, whose unrequited affection for Richard leads her deeper into alcoholism, expresses concern that they are losing their old friend to the world of mammon. Jonathan then goes so far as to create a painting that features the image of Richard with one arm around a cash register and the other around Althea Royce who is pictured Gorgon-like with octopus arms. 

Surprisingly to Jonathan, whose work has previously received little recognition anywhere, the painting is now the talk of all the galleries. Richard is furious about all the publicity the painting is receiving. Jonathan then makes an appointment with Richard in an effort to reconcile but misses the appointment because he got busted while on a picket line for the garment worker’s union strike. When the two finally do have a meeting, mediated by Julia at an upscale downtown restaurant, it ends with the two of them rolling on the floor in fisticuffs. And this is all just in the first act!

The backstory of these tragic consequences (that also includes the suicide of Athea’s husband and Richard’s hurtful, public divorce from his wife Helen), transpires in the second and third acts, ending with a lofty college valedictorian speech given by Richard quoting Laurence Binyon’s poem, “O World, Be Nobler” and a passage from Shakespeare. In his speech, Richard praises the true meaning of friendship as “that greatest of all glories.” The concluding scene in the play celebrates youthful ideals, the Armistice and the hopes for a better world. Ethical aspirations that we now know were entirely jettisoned on their way to adulthood.

Merrily We Keep Rolling Along

Let us now go back to the future almost a half century to 1981 when the director, Harold Prince, purportedly picked up the telephone and called his old friend, Stephen Sondheim, to propose an adaptation of the dramatic play by Kaufman and Hart. Prince suggested updating the backwards chronology from 1980 to 1955 and Sondheim readily agreed. George Furth was then hired to write the book. The team, a reunion of sorts, had already collaborated successfully on the Sondheim musical, Company.

Much of the blame for the musical’s failure was placed on George Furth’s libretto. “A great score sabotaged by a lousy book” was how Ben Brantley put it in his effusive 2,400 word advance piece in the New York Times prior to the musical’s opening at the New York Theatre Workshop. But the truth is, there was plenty of blame to go around. After the show closed, Sondheim and Prince had a falling out and it would be some time before they again called themselves “Old Friends” as one of the songs in the show extols.

In the musical, the playwright Richard Niles is transformed into Franklin Shepard, a composer of musicals, who abandons his friends and runs off to Hollywood to make movies. In act one, his partner, Charley Kringas sings the clever patter song, “Franklin Shepard, Inc,” that criticizes his partner’s crass opportunism. The novelist, Julia Glenn, becomes Mary Flynn, who is still a hopeless alcoholic, a character that was originally based on Dorothy Parker, a prominent member of the famed Algonquin Round Table. 

Parker – an early on, self-proclaimed feminist – published as a poet, essayist, short story writer and theatre critic who was well-known for her witticisms and sarcastic gibes. Steven Bach claims that neither Kaufman or Hart particularly cared all that much for Parker, and that the portrayal of Julia Glenn as a cynical, bitter and literally fall-down drunk in the play is “just cruel.”

Gone are the depression era references and social movements that drove the original drama and could have found ready corollaries in the politics of the 1960s and 70s in the musical. Instead we are asked to share an emotional personal journey of three sensitive but rather self-absorbed individuals whose basic notions of politics and social conscience are rehearsed in a short skit they worked up for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign which comes in the second act of the show. The musical number entitled, “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” is so puerile it trivializes the entire epoch. And that is about as political as this show gets.

Assassins, it ain’t.

Back to the Beginning

The reviews for the New York Theatre Workshop production that featured Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliff and Lindsay Mendez in the lead roles (who have stayed with the show for its Broadway transfer) have been very generous. Does this mean the internal paradox posed by the drama and the musical has been solved? Will art and commerce finally lie together in a carefully arranged marriage bed? And, most importantly, will the musical, which was such a resounding flop in 1981, finally prove their creators correct and accomplish the most remarkable metamorphosis in the history of the American theatre when the revival opens on October 10th? 

Investors and audience goers alike are mad keen to find out.

The 2013 award winning Menier Chocolate Factory production on London’s West End can be  found on YouTube here. It’s a good quality rendition of the show with the original intentions of the creators faithfully restored by director, Maria Friedman. It features Mark Umbers as Franklin Shepard, Damian Humbley as Charley Kringas and Jenna Russell as Mary Flynn.

Watching it, the viewer gets a pretty good idea of Stephen Sondheim’s last fully rounded piece of musical theatre, reworked and revised over the years until the composer felt that it was ready for a revival. As a comparator, one might think about it in the same vein as a last painting, sculpture, or manuscript unveiled to the public posthumously with the full approval and support of the artist. It might not be the artist’s best work, but the hands of greatness are clearly evident for all to see (UPDATE: for additional insights on this subject, see Michael Paulson’s article in today’s NYT, Sept 27).

And so it is with, Merrily We Roll Along. As a musical it must stand on its own merits. For Sondheim fans, and for those just coming to know his work for the first time, it is an opportunity to gain a general understanding of what a musical is and where this one fits within the Sondheim oeuvre. 

Has this Sondheim musical changed all that much over the past forty years or have we, the audience? Today, the bar has sunk very low with regard to musical theatre. The ubiquity of the jukebox musical and the luring attraction of easy money that can be made if only a librettist can be found to shoehorn in songs that have no consistent composition faculties as a complete score and then call it a musical, is a diminution of the art form. Sounding a bit like Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim himself quipped, “Today the audiences come into the theatre humming the tunes.”

My advice is don’t believe the reviewers of Merrily We Roll Along the musical past or present. Go see for yourself at the Hudson Theatre. If the shameful price of a Broadway ticket today is beyond your financial means, go to the YouTube version above and make your own judgement. 

The maestro rolled merrily along in life for 91 years before he passed away last year. Stephen Sondheim’s like won’t come around again anytime soon.

Merrily We Roll Along presented at Sheridan College in 2013, directed by Richard Ouzounian.

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