Apple Tree Theatre

“Musicals are popular,” gushes the young hero of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along. “They’re a great way to state important ideas.” In a career as notable for its uncompromising individuality as for its brilliance, Sondheim has been guided by the same principle. While other writers turned their talents to gauzy romances and escapist comedies, Sondheim was writing shows about issues of deeply personal as well as broad social significance. Along the way he gained an unfair reputation as a misanthropic cynic who couldn’t write a love song.

In fact, Sondheim’s scores have always been full of deep feeling, though they’re short on sentimentality. Their emotional intensity as much as their polished craft make Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along powerful works of musical theater–they last, even improve with age, as is evidenced by Apple Tree Theatre’s interesting mounting of the 1981 Merrily and by the superb, gripping staging of the 1979 Sweeney at Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre.

These two rework tried-and-true potboiler formulas to explore similar themes: innocence corrupted, love betrayed, and youthful idealism twisted into despair and defeat. Sweeney’s influence is Victorian melodrama–it’s filled with spurting blood and flashing razors–while Merrily draws on show-biz soap opera: the opening scene, in which a bitchy actress throws a bottle of iodine into the eyes of her younger and prettier rival, could have come straight out of Hollywood Babylon. But Sondheim’s limitless imagination and serious purpose make the shows transcend their sources.

In his script for Merrily George Furth (Sondheim’s collaborator on Company, whose brittle humor and snappy jazz-pop musical style Merrily recalls) focuses on a trio of close friends–composer Franklin Shepard, lyricist Charley Kringas, and writer Mary Flynn. The script follows their relationship from its hopeful beginning to its sordid dissolution some 20 years later, as the success of Frank and Charley’s early collaborations leads them down different paths; Mary–a wisecracking drunk apparently patterned after Dorothy Parker–goes along for the ride.

Using a device borrowed from the 1934 George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy it’s based on, Merrily proceeds backward in time, tracing the heroes’ feelings for each other from the depths of estrangement to the height of first fondness. Thus seemingly insignificant conflicts like Frank and Charley’s early bickering over artistic compromise–which the commercially minded Frank embraces and Charley resists–carry more weight with the audience, who know the bitterness that will eventually rip their relationship apart. Similarly the comedy of Mary’s youthful efforts to resist liquor is cut with pathos because the audience is aware of her eventual alcohol addiction.

The reverse narrative also plays a funny trick on the music: songs that are first heard in truncated reprises aren’t sung in their full form until later in the show. “Not a Day Goes By,” the rapturous ballad that Frank and his bride Beth sing at their wedding, is introduced in its angry, twisted reprise, hurled by Beth at Frank on the day of their divorce. And the exquisitely rueful “Good Thing Going”–the song that rockets its authors Charley and Frank to stardom–is first heard in soggy snippets of a 70s Sinatra recording, and only later in its beautiful full version, when Charley and Frank sing it to the actress Gussie Carnegie (nee Betty Malinski), whose adulterous affair with Frank sets him on the path to divorce.

Furth’s script is problematic, full of moralistic cliches about selling out, the curse of talent, and so on and not grounded enough in the social changes accompanying the personal transformations of its strong and interesting characters. (References to John F. Kennedy, Sputnik, the Vietnam debacle, and the changing status of abortion rights are resonant but too brief and undeveloped.) But Merrily is effective despite its flaws, thanks to the wit and beauty of Sondheim’s music and to the obvious emotional investment he has in the work. Tellingly, the three heroes of Merrily first team up in 1957–the year Sondheim burst on the Broadway scene as lyricist of West Side Story. They begin to drift apart in the mid 1960s, when Sondheim rejected the easy riches of clever commerical shows like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for the challenges of more serious work like Anyone Can Whistle.

Under Gary Griffin’s direction, and with down-to-the-wire revisions by Sondheim and Furth, this Apple Tree revival is solidly performed by a cast of familiar talents: Sean Grennan as Frank, Anne Gunn as Mary, Hollis Resnik (soon to be replaced by Ann Arvia) as Gussie, Gary Brichetto as the producer Gussie weds and dumps, and Paul Slade Smith, a gangly delight as the eccentric but morally anchored Charley, who sticks to his guns against commercialism and ends up winning a Pulitzer, just as Sondheim did.


Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre

If Merrily We Roll Along marked the nadir of Sondheim’s longtime professional relationship with director Harold Prince–it was a flop in its Prince-staged premiere, and in years of revisions Sondheim and Furth have endeavored to move it ever further from Prince’s original concept–Sweeney Todd was probably Prince and Sondheim’s high point. But Sweeney, with a script by Hugh Wheeler, actually works better here, as straightforward musical story telling than it did in Prince’s origi- nal epic-scale production, which rammed home the links between Sweeney’s butchery and the dehumanizing brutality of the 19th-century industrial revolution. The Broadway show’s network of catwalks and girders dwarfed the people beneath them; Joe Leonardo’s direction at Marriott’s makes maximum use of the relatively intimate in-the-round playhouse, training the audience’s attention on the characters.

Sweeney, seeking murderous revenge on the dishonest judge who ordered his imprisonment, raped his wife, and now plans to seduce his daughter, is a disillusioned idealist like Merrily’s Frank. The audience is not urged to approve or identify with his bloodthirsty deeds, but it is entreated to consider the humanity of Sweeney and his pie-baking paramour, Mrs. Lovett. That’s the key to the strong balance of humor and horror that makes the show such effective entertainment, a balance that reaches its peak in the hilarious and gruesome first-act finale “A Little Priest,” in which the pair plan their new line of cannibal pies. When Sweeney sneers at the state of the world–“What’s the sound of the world out there? . . . It’s man devouring man, my dear”–you don’t need to agree to appreciate his belief in the statement (though, honestly, haven’t we all felt the same way at least once in a while?).

The Marriott’s production downplays the mechanics of the show (though a suspended tray on a turn screw is a neat substitute for the Broadway trapdoor through which Sweeney chuted his victims to Mrs. Lovett’s oven). Instead this production relies on the stage presence and dense, creamy bass voice of opera singer Timothy Nolen as Sweeney, and on Karlah Hamilton’s fully rounded, uncaricatured portrayal of the slatternly Mrs. Lovett. (This is Hamilton’s first Chicago-area show, but one hopes not her last; she’s a terrific singing actress.) The two leads are well matched by an ensemble of superb singers–including Rita Harvey as Sweeney’s daughter, Stephen R. Buntrock as the romantic young sailor who woos her, Mary Ernster as a beggar woman with a terrible secret, and Mark Hawbecker in a show-stealing turn as a comic-opera fop who challenges Sweeney’s tonsorial primacy. Michael Duff’s crisp, full-bodied musical direction adds enormously to the show’s splendor. Sondheim’s score–operatic in scope and structure despite its musical-comedy idiom, and full of the densely patterned counterpoint, edgy energy, and rich reserves of emotion that indelibly mark Sondheim’s work–never sounded better.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Studio.