It started out like a song …
Merrily We Roll Along — from play to musical
News & Notes
A Funny Thing Happened in Melbourne
Geoffrey Rush and director Simon Phillips came together on the way to the Forum
An exclusive review of Forum at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne
Kaufman and Hart’s Merrily We Roll Along (1934) inspired Sondheim and Furth’s musical
Sondheim’s thoughts on musical theatre were clearly stated in 1964
Imelda Staunton talks about diving into works by Sondheim
Belonging and oneness are themes in Sondheim’s rare anthems
The film of Gypsy marks its 50th anniversary
An insider’s perspective on a Tennessee production of Sweeney Todd
Sondheim videos on YouTube
Hip-hop rhyming in Sondheim’s lyrics
A discography for Into the Woods
Jonathan Silverstein directed Marry Me a Little
Productions and Reviews
Keen Company brought Marry Me a Little back to New York City
The critics on Keen’s Marry Me a Little
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre brought Sunday in the Park to life
Sweeney Todd in Portland was compressed, not compromised
Assassins gets attention paid at Milwaukee Repertory Theater
Ray of Light presents a thrilling Assassins at Berkeley
Recording: Bassist Tommy Cecil gives Sondheim tunes a jazzy twist
Recording: A remix of Follies’ OCR sounds like a new show
“I Never Do Anything Twice”
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
It started out like a song
Merrily We Roll Along — from play to musical
BY Paul M. Puccio
Of the 15 musicals for the stage for which Stephen Sondheim has written music and lyrics, only five are adaptations of other plays (Saturday Night, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Frogs, Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along). The anatomy of any one of these adaptations would be fascinating, but the widdershins structure of Merrily makes it a particularly rich adaptation to examine closely — especially given Sondheim’s “reversed” score, with reprises preceding songs and accompaniments preceding vocal lines.
Merrily We Roll Along, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s play (their second collaboration), opened at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre on Sept. 29, 1934, and lasted 155 performances. Brooks Atkinson, in The New York Times, called it a “mature-minded drama.” The authors, he declared, “are looking anxiously into the background of a group of smug and successful worldlings and they see things that are likely to move you deeply.” The play is structured in three acts; the first scene is set in 1934, and the final scene in 1916. The central story of a playwright whose life is ruined by his climb to social and financial success is familiar to those who know the Sondheim and George Furth musical. Many of the characters, events and ideas in the play emerge, with varying degrees of similarity, in the musical; however, a comparison of the two plays reveals just how tightly constructed and nuanced the later Merrily is. Connecting the dots between the two illustrates how personal and creative a process adaptation can be — how the authors developed a distinctive and compelling story with its own coherent themes while honoring many elements of the earlier play.
Kaufman and Hart’s opening scene and the first scene of the revised (1994) musical are particularly similar. Conspicuously successful playwright Richard Niles is hosting a party at his Long Island country home just after the opening of a new hit play. The stage directions describe the setting as “the kind of room you have often seen as a full-page illustration in Town and Country.” The glitterati sip highballs and chatter insouciantly about European royalty, “Willie Maugham” and Times articles about themselves. Also attending the party is Julia Glenn. The first dialogue in the play belongs to her — an exchange that is heard verbatim in “That Frank”:
Julia: Know what I’m having?
Julia: Not much fun.
Julia drinks perilously and frankly criticizes Richard’s life and friends. Her parting shot is a toast, “To Richard Niles! Our most fashionable playwright! The man who has everything! And I’d rather be what I am — a drunken whore!” In both play and musical, Julia/Mary is hopelessly in love with Richard/Frank; in Kaufman and Hart, Jonathan introduces them after Julia has seen one of Richard’s early plays. She tells him, “Mr. Niles, you mustn’t let anything stand in your way. You’re going to do great things in the theatre.” Her decline into alcoholism coincides with Richard’s neglect of his art and his pursuit of fame and glamorous women. As the opening scene demonstrates, Julia sees through the veneer of his success , and while she speaks out of pain she speaks the truth.
As the scene concludes, we certainly witness the misery of Richard’s life: His (second) wife, Althea Royce, enraged that the leading role in Richard’s new play was given to the young actress Ivy Carroll, with whom Richard is having an affair, taunts Ivy with the critics’ praise, “‘Most beautiful of our younger actresses.’ ‘Starry-eyed and translucent … ,'” and then hurls iodine into Ivy’s face with “Well, perhaps you won’t be so starry-eyed now!” This scene in the musical follows the same narrative development, culminating in the same violent act and further emphasizing the same language of “stars” and “starry-eyed.” While that image alludes to superficial fame and popular appeal in both plays, it resonates even more poignantly in the musical. Frank jubilantly refers to Meg as “a rising star,” but in the musical’s final scene Frank, Charley and Mary watch the sky for another kind of light that they understand as the symbol for their potential to perform wonders and “change the world.” (Because of its polished surface, Sputnik reflected light and could be seen with the naked eye.) Resonances like this one demonstrate that just as audiences watch this play unfold backward in time (remembering what happens later in the story as they watch the scenes that occur chronologically earlier), repeat audiences can watch the play “forward” (remembering what happens later in the play as they watch scenes that take place earlier in the play’s structure).
In both shows, the continuo in Richard’s/Frank’s life is his triangular friendship. The third member of that trio in both plays does not appear until the second scene, though the loss of his friendship is mentioned in both opening scenes. Julia reveals that “you shouldn’t mention Jonathan Crale in this house” because he “painted a horrid picture of our host.” Mary declares “in this joint you must never, ever mention the name CHARLES KRINGAS! … ‘Cause Charley, Frank and I were once inseparable friends.” Both of these moments create the dramatic anticipation of Jonathan’s/Charley’s appearance. The second scene in Kaufman and Hart, set at Restaurant Le Coq D’Or, establishes the end of Richard and Jonathan’s friendship; in the 1981 version of the musical, this was developed in two scenes (one at the Polo Lounge and the other in the TV studio); the 1994 revised script merges those two scenes into the TV studio sequence.
The fractures in these friendships are caused in parallel fashion: public displays of Jonathan’s/Charley’s disapproval. In Kaufman and Hart, Jonathan has painted a picture of Richard embracing a cash register with one arm and Althea with the other. Jonathan explains to Julia that he painted this “Because I felt it. The way I feel about things has got to come out. And I’m a painter.” In the musical, Charley’s pain and anger explode in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” a nervous breakdown that takes place during a TV interview, and includes this dialogue:
Ladies and gentleman, don’t let me lose the greatest composer any lyricist ever had. Phone him, write him, stop him on the street. You’ll recognize him. He’s the one going through his checkbook – and tell that man to get back to his piano.
Both scenes end with the two men coming to blows, punctuating the end of their friendship. In the earlier play, Richard and Jonathan meet in college and share the idealism of artists to make a difference in the world. Richard’s early work premieres at the Provincetown Theatre and, from the reactions of his first wife’s parents, we gather that it is heady, earnest and decidedly uncommercial. Jonathan lives the sort of wacky Bohemian life that infuses Kaufman and Hart’s next play, You Can’t Take It with You. Indeed, that 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy takes on the same subject: the conflict between the personal joys of authentic living and the material rewards of social compromise.
Jonathan’s studio reflects a cornucopia of whimsical interests (stage directions dictate an accordion, a telescope, a pair of skates and an enormous Russian samovar); he orders country sausages, angel food cake and orange juice at a swank New York City restaurant; and he spins a windup toy top under the feet of the headwaiter. Jonathan would be at home in the Vanderhofs’ living room (in You Can’t Take It with You) where, Kaufman and Hart explain, “meals are eaten, plays are written, snakes collected, ballet steps practiced, xylophones played, printing presses operated.” Charley Kringas may not be as wildly eccentric as Jonathan, but we do glimpse his impishness when he plays with Frank Jr.: “Reaching into the open suitcase, its top up, contents hidden from them and us … Charley begins to scream and to resist an imaginary attacking alligator, pulling him deeper and deeper into the trunk.” This is the kind of innocent fun that increasingly has no place in Frank’s life as he achieves success and fame.
Both play and musical call attention to the closeness of their friendship. In the play, Jonathan is nearly figured as an antagonist to both of Richard’s wives. He pointedly advises Richard to give up Althea: “I couldn’t say this if I didn’t feel closer to you than I do to — my mother. Althea’s poison for you.” And Helen, Richard’s first wife, perceives Jonathan as a competitor for Richard’s affection; she tells Richard, “Maybe you should have married him — you like him so much.” In the musical, “Good Thing Going” (performed by Charley and Frank) expresses the fear of losing a loved one — an emotional situation that takes on rich meaning for us because we know that later in the story Charley will lose Frank, not only as a collaborator but as a friend. Reading that song as a love song does not distort it at all; friendship is surely a kind of love central to Merrily We Roll Along.
That Frank and Charley are not just friends but also a songwriting team brings their creative work more directly to the center of the musical’s narrative: We see them writing and composing (“Opening Doors”), auditioning (“Opening Doors” and “Good Thing Going”) and performing (“Bobby and Jackie and Jack”). We also witness the transformation of “Good Thing Going” from a tender ballad to a jazzed-up slinky production number in Musical Husbands. These scenes make it possible for us to care about Frank as an artist in ways that are not possible in the earlier play. This is not meant as a criticism of Kaufman and Hart so much as an observation of how the unities of the musical function: A musical about characters who write musicals allows for particularly rich and self-reflexive exposition.
The earlier play focuses its attention on Richard’s personal relationships, especially his marriages. The play’s structure emphasizes this: The first act ends with Althea rushing into Richard’s arms after she has learned that her husband has committed suicide; in a parallel fashion, the second act ends with Helen leaving a party at Althea’s having watched her and Richard flirt recklessly. Neither woman is right for Richard. Althea, like Gussie in the musical, is a volatile, self-absorbed social climber. Helen, while loving and trusting in her chronologically earliest scene with Richard, quickly becomes disillusioned with his idealistic devotion to serious art. Once they are married, she berates him for not earning money and complains bitterly about being trapped indoors with their baby. Richard and Helen live with her parents in a cramped apartment, which aggravates the discomforts in their marriage. Beth expresses a desire for material comfort (“All I want is for us to be rich as long as we’ve been poor”), but she is never as shrill or resentful as Helen. When Helen learns that Richard rejected an offer to write a play for Althea, she rages: “You let my mother and father support you, and you turned down five hundred dollars and a chance of making a lot of money! What about me? Don’t I ever get any consideration? … What did you marry me for? Just to shut me up in a room? Just to tie me down with a baby, so I couldn’t ever go any place or have a good time again!” It is possible to see Helen as responsible for Richard’s eventual decision to work for Althea and her producer. Neither Helen nor her parents can understand Richard’s attempts to explain his aesthetic values; they cannot see beyond the financial issues at stake.
This failure, especially on Helen’s part, is put into poignant relief in the play’s next scene, set four years earlier. Richard has just returned from the war, and the two lovers walk in Madison Square Park. They speak optimistically of their future together, and Helen is caught up in Richard’s enthusiasm: “We’re starting out in a strange new time. Don’t you feel it? The world isn’t what it was yesterday. It’s all new. The war has changed everything. Things are going to be fresher, and cleaner — more honest somehow.” This is clearly the kernel of inspiration for “Our Time,” an anthem for Frank, Charley, Mary and other young people who join in the chorus:
Something is stirring,
It’s just begun.
Edges are blurring
And yesterday is done.
Kaufman and Hart’s play was not economical, in any sense of the word. It had nine sets, 250 costumes and a cast of 91, including 40 dress extras. George Furth’s book impressively pares down the bulk of the play, removing ancillary characters (such as Richard’s brother and Althea’s mother) and smartly combining Althea’s producer and first husband into one character, Joe Josephson. (In the play, Althea’s producer begs for the loan, and her first husband commits suicide when she leaves him for Richard.) But Furth also revises particularly clever and amusing elements of the play. In Kaufman and Hart, an inventor unsuccessfully tries to convince Helen’s father to invest in cellopaper (cellophane); in Furth’s book, Tyler pitches the telephone answering machine to Joe. The unwillingness of these men to advance cash for inventions that their audiences know to be fabulously profitable is one of the many ironies created by the reverse time-movement.
The play ends with Richard and Jonathan’s college graduation — a scene that inspired the framework of the 1981 version of the musical. Richard’s valedictory address, saturated with an irony made clear by the rest of the play, celebrates his friendship with Jonathan: “Of all the things I take away with me, the one that I most treasure, for which I am the most humbly grateful, is a friendship that I have formed here. (He makes a slight gesture toward Jonathan Crale.) I hope he will always be beside me, all through my life.” Richard’s final words honor idealism: “As we go out in the world, as we take up our chosen professions, we are clad, as it were, in shining armor. Let nothing sully that. With you goes a new hope, a new idealism.” “The Hills of Tomorrow” expresses the same lofty sentiments:
Then raise the torch and seize the day!
Behold! Our banners fly to mark the way!
Standards billowing, unsullied, proud!
Visions bright, voices loud!
While Kaufman and Hart’s play is not a musical, there are songs in six of its nine scenes: entertainment at Richard’s party, an orchestra playing at a restaurant, characters exuberantly breaking into song, music on an early radio, boys spontaneously singing in Madison Square Park, a ritual organ pealing in the college chapel. These moments add historical or dramatic texture to the play, but we might also see them as invitations to latter-day adapters, urging them to re-envision this story as a musical. The play indeed starts out with a song: “A dark-haired young Man is at the piano, playing, with a good deal of skill, one of the popular tunes of the day. Leaning across the piano, listening with a professional interest, is a handsome, flaxen-haired lad.” In that tableau of rapt attention given to a song might be one of the seeds of inspiration that unfolded into the musical that is arguably the only afterlife that Kaufman and Hart’s play now enjoys. |TSR|
PAUL M. PUCCIO, an associate editor of TSR, is an associate professor of English at Bloomfield College in New Jersey.
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