Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Sondheim at 75 (Part Six)

This review appeared originally in The Metro Herald in August 2002:

Sondheim’s RSV:
Merrily We Roll Along at the Kennedy Center
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

In the early part of the last century, church leaders and theologians concluded that the venerable King James Version (KJV) of the Bible had become increasingly difficult to understand in the wake of changes in the English language since the sixteenth century. In addition, increased scholarship in biblical languages, archeology, history, and anthropology had provided insights necessary to produce a better translation from the original texts.

The effort to make such a translation resulted in what is now called the Revised Standard Version, or RSV. Never entirely accepted by some Christians, who continue to (literally) swear by the KJV, and not the only modern translation available (the New International Version, the Jerusalem Bible, and others have been published over the past 50 years), the RSV is, nonetheless, the standard reference Bible for scholars when they are not dealing in the original languages.

We have a similar situation facing us at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre, in the form of Merrily We Roll Along, a 1981 musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and George Furth (book). While the essence of the show remains the same as it was at the time of the Broadway premiere, tinkering over the years has made it sufficiently different that we can call this production Merrily We Roll Along: The Revised Standard Version.

More than 20 years on, it is hard to believe that the original production of Merrily We Roll Along was met with catcalls and mass walkouts between the acts, leading to a meager Broadway run of just 16 performances (preceded by six weeks of previews).

So few of us were able to see that first production that most of our familiarity with the show comes from the original cast album, recorded the day after the show closed, with its Hirschfeld artwork and photo of Stephen Sondheim on the cover. That recording reveals a rich score of, ironically, some of Sondheim’s most hummable melodies. The OCR quickly became a cult favorite, overtaking Anyone Can Whistle (Sondheim’s nine-performance, 1964 Broadway flop) as the most popular such recording among Sondheim fans.

I have seen various productions of Merrily over the years, starting with the first college production at The Catholic University in 1982, then the Arena Stage version in 1990 (twice, at the beginning and end of the run), followed by the Donmar Warehouse in February 2001, to the version here. I am led to one conclusion: The original Broadway production had to have failed because of Harold Prince’s direction.

I say this because the show works well with the changes wrought by Sondheim and Furth, which began at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse in 1985 (under the direction of James Lapine) and continuing through the aforementioned Arena Stage production (under the direction of Douglas Wager and featuring, among others in the cast, Victor Garber and David Garrison), adding further refinements for the Leicester Haymarket production of 1992, to the current production at the Kennedy Center (now directed by Christopher Ashley). Yet it also works when the script is closer to the original text and the staging is closer to Prince’s original conception, such as the 2000–2001 Donmar Warehouse version (directed by Michael Grandage), which won multiple Olivier awards (the London equivalent of the Tony®), including “best musical” and acting awards for Samantha Spiro and Daniel Evans.

Now Sondheim (I’m told) didn’t like that Donmar production. That’s his privilege, after all, especially since Donmar did not incorporate most of the changes that he sees as improvements. For my money, however, I’ll take that version over the substantially rewritten one we have this summer at the Kennedy Center.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those not familiar with Merrily We Roll Along, the musical is based on a 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. That play follows, in reverse chronological order, the lives and careers of two friends, a playwright and a painter, starting with them cynical and corrupt, ending with them starry-eyed and unsullied. Thematically, the idea of a protagonist whose ideals are corrupted over time can be found in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (1948), which—it is said—is the show that Sondheim has been trying to rewrite and perfect his entire career.

That property was brought to Sondheim by producer-director Harold Prince, whose producing partner, Robert Griffith, had been in the cast of the Kaufman and Hart play as a young actor and whose wife, Judy, thought it would be a good vehicle for a youthful cast of actors and singers (including, potentially, the Princes’ teenage daughter).

Converting Kaufman and Hart’s playwright and painter into a composer and lyricist, Sondheim and librettist Furth (who also wrote Company) followed the conceit closely. Sondheim wrote the score “backwards” so that, for instance, reprises of numbers are heard first, before the full song is “introduced” and echoes and motifs precede our hearing of the main themes on which they are based.

The play focuses on the relationship of three friends—Franklin Shepard, a composer who has become a successful movie producer (Michael Hayden); his lyricist, Charley Kringas, who has become a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Raúl Esparza, fresh from Sunday in the Park with George); and Mary Flynn (Miriam Shor), a struggling writer who becomes a best-selling author (of one book) and then a drama critic who is also a fat lush (don’t blame me; it’s in the script).

One of the flaws in the current, “official” version of Merrily is that it drops the framing device of two high-school graduation ceremonies.

In the original version, Franklin Shepard, age 43, has returned to his alma mater, Lake Forest High School, to deliver a commencement speech. As he addresses the graduates, his life begins to unfold before him in a series of flashbacks. The play ends with Frank and Charley’s own graduation 25 years earlier. Musically, the anthem “The Hills of Tomorrow” (now excised from the score) was sung with loose dissonance in the first scene and more tightly harmonized in the last scene, signifying Frank’s (and the world’s) corruption. (It helps to note, too, that “The Hills of Tomorrow” is harmonically related to “Good Thing Going”—but more about that song later.)

The play now begins with the “transition” music of the title song (asking, “How did you get there from here?”), and we’re thrown immediately into a party scene in the Hollywood Hills, featuring “That Frank,” which has replaced “Rich and Happy.” The difference between the songs is that “Rich and Happy” portrays the Hollywood crowd as hypocritical sycophants, while in “That Frank” they are mere sycophants. A loss of texture, no?

The next two scenes from the original have been compressed—one might say streamlined—into one. Whereas originally Mary had tricked Charley and Frank into meeting at a tony Beverly Hills restaurant in 1976 (four years “after” the opening scene in 1980), in hopes that they might reconcile after a disastrous 1973 TV interview, that scene disappears and we are thrown directly into that TV studio.

The problem with eliminating that intervening scene is that it diminishes the process of Frank and Charley’s feud. It cheats us from seeing the long(er) deterioration of their relationship. By 1981, Charley should have been a distant memory, albeit a former “old friend,” of Frank’s, if they have not, indeed, seen or talked to each other in all that time (almost a decade).

That TV interview is key, in many ways. First of all, it gives us the best musical nervous breakdown seen on stage since “Rose’s Turn” in Gypsy. And Raúl Esparza sings “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” magnificently. He is a pressure-cooker at work, a contained explosion staying rooted to his chair, while a lesser performer might give in to the temptation of sputtering and flailing his arms. A fine line between genius and madness, indeed. (A footnote: Esparza’s understudy is Washington-based actor Jason Gilbert, who was born to play the role of Charley. Given his previous performances in Freedomland at Woolly Mammoth and Lady in the Dark at American Century Theatre, Gilbert has the acting chops necessary to pull off controlled mania. Not to wish Raúl Esparza ill, but we deserve a chance to see Jason Gilbert as Charley Kringas someday—soon, if possible.)

And yet—and yet, despite Frank’s violent reaction to Charley’s public outburst about their professional and personal relationship, eight years “later” there are no visible signs that Frank’s public life or professional career have been adversely affected. In fact, if anything has caused Frank to suffer, it has been his second wife, Gussie, the Yoko Ono who broke up the Frank-Charley-Mary little band.

Gussie (Emily Skinner) is unadulterated ambition—lustful, cynical from the get-go, selfish, and boorish. She knocks people down and climbs over them to get to the top.

Many have thought that Frank is the villain in this piece, because he allows himself to be corrupted. Frank is no villain; he is the hero, a flawed protagonist who acknowledges and takes responsibility for his mistakes (or, as he puts it, his single mistake, repeated over and over, “never saying no”). Charley and Mary try to stand in Frank’s way as he decides to forge a path different from the one he—they—started out on. They are not heroes, but the hero’s misguided (and well-intentioned) friends. But Gussie—Gussie is the villainess, the one who would eat her own child if it meant a starring role in the movies. She is the seducer, the corruptor—perhaps not so much Yoko Ono as Lady Macbeth.

In any case, Gussie had precipitated Frank’s divorce from Beth (Anastasia Barzee), whom he had met while auditioning girl singers for a Greenwich Village revue in 1960. The wedding—and divorce—are accompanied by one of Sondheim’s loveliest love songs, the hauntingly lyrical “Not a Day Goes By.” Incredibly, however, the new version transfers the divorce reprise of the song from Frank to Beth, eliminating the poignancy of the moment and replacing it with banality.

Beth is “introduced” during what is perhaps Sondheim’s best musical scene, the “Opening Doors” sequence, which rivals the Bench Scene in Carousel (“If I Loved You”) as the best, most compact, not-a-word-wasted musical scenes in the history of theatre. It compresses into seven minutes two years of triple biography—tight exposition made all the more remarkable because it comes near the end of the show. (And now that “Our Time” has become the finale, “Opening Doors” is the 11 o’clock number that “Our Time” was meant to be in . . . oh, never mind.)

A word about “Good Thing Going”: This song is sung completely only once during the show, as an audition piece at a Manhattan cocktail party (where some of the guests are—gasp!—smoking marijuana! in 1962!). The song is a précis of the entire show. Lyrically, although it is meant to be a “love song,” it sums up the zeniths and nadirs of Frank and Charley’s friendship. Musically, its theme infests the entire score. It is “Frank’s theme” and, judging by it, it seems Frank made a good choice in becoming a film producer, because apparently he was able to write only one song. The melody of “Good Thing Going” is the basis of “The Hills of Tomorrow” (or is it the other way around?); it’s the arpeggio the orchestra plays when Charley is describing how Frank “goes” in “Franklin Shepard Inc.” It punctuates the “Opening Doors” sequence, and even has alternative lyrics as a novelty song: “Who wants to live in New York? . . . garbage cans clanging in the street,” etc. A quotation from Frank Sinatra’s recording of the song is played on the infamous TV show. It seems to be the “big hit” from Musical Husbands, Frank and Charley’s first Broadway musical (starring Gussie, in a cheesy “finale” that makes us wonder, “How did this awful show—Musical Husbands—become a hit?”). The effect is subtle, but becomes plain when one listens to the score frequently enough.

It needs to be said that, standing alone, at some other theatre in some other time, this Merrily would be seen as the apex of any season. Its performances are uniformly excellent. The set design by Derek McLane is creative and highly effective. Director Christopher Ashley has added some clever touches, such as having 10-year-old Justin Pereira (playing “Frank, Jr.”) sing the last transition number solo. Every element—casting, costumes, choreography, lighting, musical direction—is praiseworthy. Still, in comparison to the first three Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration shows—Sweeney Todd, Company, and Sunday in the Park with George—it falls short. Yet artistic director Eric Schaeffer and his creative team have raised the bar abnormally high. Could we really expect, as has been the case so far, that each show would be incrementally better than the others? No, no, we couldn’t.


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