Don't Trust Anyone Over Thirty

by Barry Drogin

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"What did you think of the show?" I asked my theatre companion.

"It won't be a hit."

"But what did you think of the show?"

"I liked it."

Word of mouth for the new Sondheim-Prince musical, "Merrily We Roll Along," has been as atrocious as it has been vicious. Now that the name Sondheim justifies commercial air-time, everyone has an opinion and speculates like a poor gold digger. The problem is that all of this "inner knowledge" of what the show is like has been supplied by the media, not by theatregoers who by now are afraid to admit they like the show. I liked "Merrily We Roll Along," and you will, too, if, as Clive Barnes remarked, you can "distinguish between what [you] are actually seeing on stage and what [you] heard about the show during previews."

Many people who haven't seen "Sweeney Todd," and many who only have seen "Sweeney Todd," think they know what Sondheim is about and what sort of show he should be writing. I'm sorry, but "Sweeney Todd" was not an opera, was nowhere near one, and was not a theatrical benchmark. By Sondheim standards, "Sweeney Todd" was thoughtless (though planned) and heartless (though terrifying). What "Sweeney Todd" was was a milestone in Sondheim's own career: it displayed the final perfection of his score-writing craft, a craft that could turn even a cheap horror story into an enjoyable evening at the theatre.

"Merrily We Roll Along" is the first musical Sondheim has written that benefits from this perfected craft, using it to express the intelligent, personal ideas that made previous Sondheim musicals enjoyable in the first place. The new musical not only speaks to us but says some very important things.

The musical is foremost about expedience (Dictionary: "Serving to promote one's interest without regard for principle."). Franklin Shepard, composer and Julliard graduate, decides writing a hit Broadway show isn't that bad, decides making it as a movie producer isn't that bad --- forgets that he is a composer. As a young man, he says, "If I stopped composing, I'd die." There isn't much life left in Franklin Shepard, Inc. and his two life-long friends --- he has driven one to drink; the other he refuses to talk to anymore.

People over thirty, and that includes all theatre critics, don't particularly want to hear about goals that got lost, dreams that were forgotten, idealism pushed aside for expedience's sake. For them, the reality of hope has passed. They're already ten compromises down the road.

For college students, however, "Merrily We Roll Along" is a very upbeat, life-affirming musical. Director Prince had the original idea for the show, a show not for his generation but for his teenage children. Just as "Company" should be seen by anyone thinking of getting married, "Merrily We Roll Along" should be seen by anyone starting out in life with ideals and goals.

The music is intensely likeable and extremely memorable. Fans who incorrectly think that Sondheim really wants to write a "Rite of Spring" will be very disappointed, and will continue to be throughout the eighties: Sondheim simply is not that type of composer. The music is brassy, popular and quintessential Sondheim. It's less Bacharachian than "Company" was, and therefore, I would say, better. The lyrics are precise and perfect. Except for cut songs (the show was too long) and some altered lyrics, the score is practically as it was on the first day of previews.

The book, staging and choreography have radically changed from those first days, however, and all for the better. The plot is now twenty times tighter, with only six characters and shorter scenes (I accepted the challenge of the first version, but many people didn't). The staging is now supplemented by projections, and the choreography, originally gratuitous, now actually expresses along with the show. For the non-leads, emphasis is placed on group rather than individual dancing, which is clearer and cleaner.

The new lead, Jim Walton, is the dancer his predecessor wasn't, and portrays a less intelligent, though much more likeable character. Unfortunately, upstaging by his two friends, played by Ann Morrison and Lonny Price, is hard to resist. They're fantastic --- Morrison with her Ethel Merman gutsiness, and Price with his comedic flair. They're worth the price of admission, and they know it.

The new book by George Furth is not as funny but is more coherent and affecting. Some gems remain, like the Elizabeth Taylor crack, "So now she'll do Broadway and say it's always where she wanted to be," and the "Don't marry her unless she's pregnant" faux pas.

Finally, what we have is an intelligent, thoughtful musical, unlike the compromise blockbusters Franklin Shepard writes. So, maybe it won't be a hit. See it for your private enjoyment. You'll like it.

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007