Merrily We Roll Along

Porchlight Theatre

at the Athenaeum Theatre

Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts

Bailiwick Repertory

By Albert Williams

“Whatever you may have heard about it–go and see it for yourselves,” wrote Clive Barnes of the 1981 Broadway flop Merrily We Roll Along, composer Stephen Sondheim and playwright George Furth’s much anticipated follow-up to their controversial but groundbreaking 1970 collaboration, Company. “It is far too good a musical to be judged by those twin kangaroo courts of word of mouth and critical consensus.”

Barnes’s opinion was decidedly a dissenting one: every other major review of the original production was a pan–New York critics called it everything from “a shambles” to “a blunder” to “a dud.” The flaws cited were legion (and often contradictory). For some observers the main drawback was the narrative structure: Merrily We Roll Along traces its protagonists’ lives backward in time, from bleak and bitter middle age to idealistic, innocent youth. Also criticized was the story’s leading man: a songwriter who abandons his passionate belief in the power of musicals to “change the world,” he seems to be a heel who ditches his loving young wife for a mercenary older woman and turns his back on his two closest friends. Many observers blamed the production’s revolutionary concept: director Harold Prince (also Sondheim and Furth’s collaborator on the original Company) cast the show with teenagers in order to highlight the theme of corrupted innocence. (And what teenagers! The original ensemble included such fledgling stars of stage, screen, and sitcom as Jason Alexander, Liz Callaway, Tonya Pinkins, and Giancarlo Esposito.)

Even Sondheim’s score was dismissed as thin, notable only for a few lovely songs–which have indeed become staples of the cabaret repertoire. Entranced by their beautiful melodies and aching lyrics, few noticed the ingenious, operatic way the composer arranged his musical motifs to mirror the shifts in the characters’ relationships. But the most frequently cited problem was Furth’s script, attacked as a mawkish mix of showbiz soap opera and shallow bitchery. The show closed after a handful of performances, and though Sondheim and Furth have continued to work on it, conventional wisdom holds that it remains a fundamentally flawed piece even played by adult actors.

I admit that I’ve contributed to the “critical consensus” Barnes dismissed: reviewing Apple Tree Theatre’s 1993 production of the revised version of Merrily, I criticized the script as “full of moralistic cliches about selling out,” saying that the show’s major draw was Sondheim’s music. But Porchlight Theatre’s superb new production has brushed away my doubts about the script and made me appreciate even more the score’s remarkable richness. Most important, this eloquent, deeply felt, finely crafted revival reveals that together the text and songs form an intricately structured, consistently inventive, surprisingly appealing and moving work. At the performance I attended, the audience ranged from die-hard Sondheim fans to casual, even novice theatergoers, including a substantial number of teenagers (a demographic group generally ignored by theaters but one that the Athenaeum’s marketing staff has conscientiously targeted). Athenaeum producer Fred Solari insists that the kids at last Sunday’s matinee had actually paid for their tickets, sensibly arguing that it’s counterproductive to comp kids in because they’re less likely to care about the show. In any case, these young viewers seemed riveted and amused by a musical that spoke to them directly and intelligently about such themes as midlife crises and artists staying true to their vision.

What is it that makes Porchlight’s Merrily so resonant two decades after the show’s disastrous Broadway debut? I think it’s partly Sondheim’s and Furth’s deep emotional investment in the work. In an interview with Frank Rich in the March 12 New York Times Magazine, published in honor of Sondheim’s 70th birthday, the composer says that “one of the reasons I love writing musicals is that musicals are collaborations. I love the family feeling.” Sondheim himself, of course, writes both the words and music of his songs, a difficult feat to pull off–the Sondheims, the Cole Porters, the Irving Berlins, even the Jerry Hermans of this world are few and far between. But even though Merrily’s score is not a collaboration, the show as a whole is the product of longtime fellow artists and friends. Almost two decades later, they’re still tinkering with it–Furth is reportedly at work on yet another revision.

But the striking success of Porchlight’s Merrily is principally due, I think, to its creative team and performers, who have brought as much personal investment to the work as Sondheim and Furth. Director L. Walter Stearns and musical director Eugene Dizon have melded a group of young non-Equity singer-actors whose abilities range from solidly competent to ready-for-the-big-time into a unified, organic ensemble dedicated to investigating every dramatic nook and cranny of this famously problematic material. Their shrewd choices and tender commitment have unearthed emotional nuances that have eluded productions with far bigger budgets and higher profiles–starting, of course, with the much anticipated and much debated Broadway premiere. Credit the long rehearsal period available to a non-Equity staging, unfettered by union regulations and salary expectations: this show was reportedly in rehearsal for two months, allowing the actors time to delve deeply into their characters’ complex relationships. Credit too the intelligence and love that have guided this ensemble every step of the way. Porchlight’s Merrily is well acted and very well sung, but so are many other shows; what makes this production special is the way it disproves the “critical consensus” about the material by honoring its fundamental honesty, humanity, and complexity.

The intricate web of relationships at the story’s core represents part of that complexity. The two male leads, Frank Shepard and Charley Kringas, are a songwriting team whose youthful determination to create musicals that “can express important ideas” (just as Sondheim’s West Side Story did in the late 50s, the era in which Frank and Charley set out to break into Broadway) is eventually–and in Frank’s case permanently–compromised by pressures to write “fast, loud, and funny” shows for producer Joe Josephson. Joe’s wife, a predatory actress named Gussie Carnegie, is younger than Joe but older than Frank, whom she sets out to seduce. To get her man she must splinter his relationship not only with Charley but with Mary Flynn, Frank and Charley’s best friend. (Frank and Charley, pals since their high school days at Lake Forest Academy in the Chicago suburbs, met Mary when the three ended up on a Manhattan rooftop together to view the passing of Sputnik–which symbolized to them a new beginning for the world rather than a threat to its survival.) Mary, an aspiring writer, is the unofficial cheerleader for Frank and Charley’s burgeoning career; the fact that she’s in love with Frank is obvious to everyone but Frank, who falls for Beth, a pretty young actress who teams up with Frank and Charley to form a cabaret act in the early 60s. (The nightclub number they sing, a bouncy spoof of the Kennedy clan, is a perfect imitation of the witty satirical songs popular at such chic Greenwich Village clubs as Upstairs at the Downstairs.) Frank and Beth marry when she becomes pregnant, and Frank’s early willingness to compromise his artistic integrity is ignited by his need to support her and their child. But it’s kicked into overdrive by the couple’s messy, costly divorce a few years later: Beth takes everything he has, spiritually as well as materially. As Frank’s friendship with Mary and Charley founders, Gussie takes over his life, dumping Joe and encouraging Frank to pursue a far more lucrative career producing movies in which she can star.

Obviously, this story is about as far from “boy meets girl” as a musical can get, especially when it’s told in reverse chronological order (a device taken from the original George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play on which the musical is based). But producers have often gone too far in eschewing old-fashioned musical-theater values, substituting arch irony and brittle bitchery for traditional romanticism.

What the Porchlight crew has done is to find the frailty and fallibility in each of the show’s principal characters. Frank, played by Charlie Clark, is no mere heel but a man torn by conflicting needs and impulses who’s led down a road he comes to regret traveling. Charley–played by Stephen Rader, whose lyrical, thoughtfully slow rendition of the delicate pop ballad “Good Thing Going” is the show’s musical high point–is not only the voice of unflagging idealism but an impractical obsessive whose anger at Frank drives his friend away. (He’s also possibly in love with Frank, or so this production ambiguously suggests–an example of how Stearns and his cast have mined the script for every subtextual implication.) And Mary, the aspiring novelist turned cynical critic–played by Suzanne Genz, who stepped capably into the role after Stearns’s original choice, Mary Beth Thiels, was sidelined by a sudden illness–is a lost soul whose escalating alcoholism, fueled by her unrequited passion for Frank, both corrupts her gift as a writer and acts as an excuse for that loss (the character is obviously patterned on Dorothy Parker). Gussie, Beth, and Joe are less richly textured roles, but the actors–Karen Doern, Julie Cardia, and Christopher Moore respectively–play them to the hilt, making every contradictory intention crystal clear. Robert G. Smith’s inventive yet simple set supports the unorthodox narrative structure, and choreographer Samantha Fitschen’s dances are as quirky as the music that drives them. But identifying individual contributions is almost beside the point: what makes Porchlight’s Merrily We Roll Along so extraordinary is the bond the whole company feels with the material.

In the New York Times interview Sondheim bemoaned the “dumbing down” of Broadway, saying that writers and producers pander to the broadest possible audience. “What’s happened to the theater,” he says, “does depress me. . . . The audience that is there is not an audience who would either like or respond to the kind of stuff I write.” But Sondheim (and Rich) should look beyond the horizons they’ve set for themselves. In the cramped second-floor studio of the Athenaeum Theatre there’s not only an audience responding to Sondheim’s stuff but artists who are giving it new life with talent, conviction, and love in a revealing, deeply felt production.

Like Merrily We Roll Along, David Biele’s new musical drama Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts portrays an idealistic composer embittered by the realities of life and the conflicts between artistry and commercial success. Here the story comes from fact rather than fiction, however: its subject is Stephen Foster, the most popular songwriter of the mid-19th century. A prodigy who published his first song in 1842 when he was only 17, Foster became America’s best-selling composer at the age of 25, when blackface minstrel Edwin P. Christy introduced “Old Folks at Home.” The problem was, Foster sold Christy the authorship credit, and it was only after Foster’s death that the composer received his due for this “Ethiopian song,” as minstrel tunes were called. A few years earlier the 22-year-old Foster had sold the rights to another song–“Oh! Susanna,” a worldwide hit that even today many presume is a folk tune–for about $100 to a publisher for whom it eventually made some $10,000.

Merrily’s Frank Shepard is corrupted by success; Stephen Foster was destroyed by failure. Longing for acceptance as a serious composer by the white musical establishment, he found his greatest–and most lasting–success writing minstrel-show hits; what money he earned from them he quickly spent, first trying to support a wife and child and later to pay for his escalating alcohol addiction. By the time he died in 1864–technically from injuries sustained in a fall, but fundamentally from the effects of advanced alcoholism–he was virtually penniless, abandoned by his wife and neglected by his siblings. His few remaining effects included a scrap of paper on which were scribbled the words “Dear friends and gentle hearts”–probably a lyric for an unwritten song and the source of this play’s title.

Foster was a figure of fascinating paradoxes. The man who wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” and proclaimed in “Oh! Susanna” that “I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee” was a native of Pittsburgh–literally a Yankee Doodle Dandy born on the Fourth of July. His notions of the south came from novels (including Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and from the songs and anecdotes he heard from ex-slaves. The composer whose “Some Folks” burbled platitudes about “the merry, merry heart” was a morbid drunk. The man whose sentimental parlor ballad “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair” epitomized idyllic heterosexual romanticism was a failed husband–and possibly a repressed homosexual or simply asexual. There’s been much speculation on the nature of Foster’s relationship with George Cooper, the young poet who tried to revive Foster’s career by providing him with lyrics–and who endeavored to save his friend from his all-too-evident alcoholism, sticking with him to the bitter end. “Steve never wore any night clothes and he lay there on the floor naked and suffering horribly. He had wonderful big brown eyes and they looked up at me with an appeal I can never forget. He whispered, ‘I’m done for,’ and begged for a drink.” Thus wrote Cooper to Foster’s brother Morrison, informing him of Foster’s death; whatever the nature of Cooper’s feelings for Foster, he was obviously devoted to him.

Foster is as recognizably modern in his sufferings as his songs are quintessentially part of their era. It’s not hard to see what has drawn Biele–whose past credits include Vanguards: 8 Stories of Life Before Liberation, a 1997 docudrama about gay life in Chicago before the Stonewall riots–to Foster as a dramatic subject. And with Foster’s alternately lovely and lively music as a bonus, Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts has the potential for powerful, offbeat musical theater.

Biele’s dramatic structure is adventurous. The narrative slips back and forth between present and past, reality and memory, making clever use of the eight ensemble members in multiple roles. A jolly bartender, for instance, is transformed into Foster’s stubborn father, who disapproves of his son’s musical ambitions–music is a “womanly” pursuit–forcing him into a practical but unfulfilling career as a bookkeeper. (Unfortunately, Rick Paul’s realistic set–as solid as anything you’d see on the stage of Steppenwolf or the Goodman–is ill suited to Biele’s fluidly cinematic storytelling.) Foster’s songs are well integrated, sung by the actors (several of whom also play instruments) to comment on key aspects of Foster’s life, including his grief over the death of his beloved sister Charlotte and his own shockingly rapid decline. Cooper sings “Beautiful Dreamer,” one of Foster’s last and loveliest melodies, as he lovingly strokes the sleeping songwriter’s hair.

But Biele’s ambition far outshines his gifts as a playwright: the script is often mawkish and forced, sometimes recalling clunky historical dramas of the 1950s and ’60s, films like Disney’s Johnny Tremain and DeMille’s The Buccaneer. “My father was a merchant of Scotch-Irish ancestry,” says Foster at one point, sounding exactly like an encyclopedia entry. Later a man excitedly tells his friends that the Union army has started shelling Fort Sumter–“the place where this whole dang war started!” (as if they didn’t know). The disjunction between the story’s dark subject matter and Biele’s naive, often wooden dialogue is peculiar to say the least. And in a bizarre climax Foster’s dead spirit ascends to heaven–just like Little Eva–to join his dead sister. I’m still not sure if that’s Biele’s homage to 19th-century melodrama or just bad playwriting. By far the best lines in the show come from Poe’s “The Raven,” whose mournful, tormented verse Foster hurls at Cooper after the young poet is drafted and leaves him to fight in the Civil War. This confrontation, in which Cooper also confesses his true feelings for Foster, is a strikingly original piece of poetic theater–an indication of the dramatic potential in Biele’s story.

The show’s other high points are all musical; but unfortunately there are a few too many of them. Director David Zak and musical director Stephanie Newsom’s able cast of actor-singers deliver some 20 of Foster’s songs with zeal–and, in the case of Marc Pera, who plays Cooper, with real skill. (Jeffrey Fowers is appealing but bland as Foster, much more effective as a child in the flashbacks than he is as a surly, self-pitying drunk.) Foster’s songs start to sound alike after a while, especially the genteel parlor ballads, though a few are exquisite– “Jeanie” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” for instance.

The “Ethiopian songs” are much more appealing, in part because Biele has thoughtfully drawn our attention to the real suffering simmering beneath the songs’ contrived pathos. “All de world am sad and dreary, / Ebry where I roam, / Oh! darkies, how my heart grows weary,” goes the chorus in “Old Folks at Home.” Putting aside the period dialect and unintended racism, one can hear the deep well of loneliness and pain in those words–and in the grand gospel rhythms and harmonies of a hymn like “Hard Times Come Again No More,” the show’s magnificent finale. The music helps us understand how, and at what cost, Foster turned minstrel songs from hackwork into something like art, aiding black music’s infiltration of white parlors and beginning the process that’s led to today’s multiracial musical culture. It was no accident that Negro spirituals like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” first appeared in printed form the year after Foster’s death; if only he’d lived to see it.