Catching at Dreams

The legendary (notorious?) Merrily We Roll Along was a neo musical comedy (before there was such a thing) that just didn't work, opening just nine months before Little Shop of Horrors, the first neo musical comedy that did work, setting the tone for so many shows that followed, like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Cry-Baby, Lysistrata Jones, Heathers, and lots of others.

For those who aren't regular readers of this blog, a neo musical comedy is a show that uses the conventions of old-school musical comedy, but in an ironic, postmodern, self-aware, more political context. The neo musical comedy takes the already heightened style of older musical comedies, and raises the stakes even higher, to absurd proportions, creating a style the creators of Bat Boy called "the depth of sincerity, the height of expression," meaning the emotions and inner life are as real and honest as possible, but the style is greatly heightened. I described it in one of my books this way – "The canvas is bigger, the colors richer, the brushstrokes more expansive, but the image is no less true, the details no less real, the textures no less subtle."

And this is something a lot of actors and directors don't understand – you can't try to be funny in these shows. You have to play the characters as honestly as possible inside this heightened world. The funny will take of itself. The exaggerated high stakes combined with a fiercely serious performance will be hilarious. Believe me. I saw the original productions of Little Shop of Horrors, Bat Boy, and Urinetown, and I've directed a couple dozen shows like them. These shows aren't musical comedies; they're neo musical comedies. That straight-faced ├╝ber-earnestness is a vital part of the recipe; it's the ironic dissonance of serious and ridiculous that's so funny to the audience, particularly at this moment in our cultural history. But if you try to be funny, you destroy half the recipe.

This style is parallel to the style of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Onion.

The musical comedy essentially died in the 1960s, and as America entered the Age of Irony, shows like Company, The Robber Bridegroom, and Chicago utterly blew up the old form. Across the art form, the 70s were a time of very free experimentation, some of which was awful, some of which moved us forward. The ironic neo musical comedy was born in the 80s, during the Reagan Years, perhaps in response to a resounding national reversal of the ideals of the 60s. But musical theatre as an art form was pretty barren during that decade, so Little Shop didn't spawn many successful imitators. It wasn't until the mid-90s that the new Golden Age would begin, and the neo musical comedy would be reborn in Bat Boy.

A year after the premiere of The Daily Show.

Bat Boy composer-lyricist Larry O'Keefe said to me once in an interview, "We did set out to foil people's expectations of what a musical does – making the love story perverse, the ending unhappy and the moral absurd." It's a musical comedy that fucks with you. And that has something to say.

Little Shop of Horrors understood all that (or maybe we should say it invented all that?), and it ran for over five years. Merrily We Roll Along didn't understand any of that, and it ran 16 performances.

Merrily We Roll Along told the story of three friends losing their way and drifting apart, but it plays out in reverse, ending with the three friends meeting for the first time. This was a musical comedy that fucks with you. In interviews at the time, Sondheim often talked about how he had really written a musical comedy score for this show, but then he would point out that reprises happen before the songs they reprise, musical themes get quoted in the accompaniment before we hear them as songs, etc. The entire score operates traditionally but backwards. So no, Uncle Steve, that's not a musical comedy score; that's a neo musical comedy score.

But even though Hal Prince is a genius and one of my strongest influences as a director, I really don't think he understood this show. The production made so many mistakes.

First of all, the reverse structure was the only thing that was at all "alternative" about the show. The rest of the production was almost defiantly conventional and ordinary. And in my opinion, all the design elements were totally wrong.

The lighting was really dark, using lots of follow spots. When was the last time you saw a darkly lit musical comedy? I hope never. The sets were also really minimalist, like they were doing a low-budget show off Broadway, when they should have been big and bright, maybe even cartoony. Imagine "Rich and Happy" in a visual style similar to the original How to Succeed. If you listen to "Rich and Happy" on the original Merrily cast album, you can hear that the ensemble gets this dark cartoon style. (You might argue that the leads were trapped by some of the dialogue.) Finally, the costumes were a colossal blunder. All the characters wore t-shirts labeled with their relationship to Frank, "Best Friend," "Wife;" or sometimes, their character names; or sometimes they wore normal costumes. There had been normal costume designs at first, but Prince scrapped them for the church-basement-theatre look.

But the biggest mistake of all was casting kids in all the leads. The kids didn't know what feeling lost and middle-aged was like. But middle-aged actors do know what being young and hopeful (and clueless) feels like. The kids didn't understand the weighty irony of the material, or the compromises of middle age. The script and score came from the perspective of middle age, but the production didn't.

In 2011, I rewatched my bootleg video (shhhh!) of the original Merrily We Roll Along, and that's when I realized it was a neo musical comedy. So much of what didn't work originally now seems organic to the art form in this new Golden Age. The problem of an asshole as protagonist may have been (commercially) insurmountable in 1981, but today it fits right in alongside Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bonnie & Clyde, High Fidelity, and A New Brain.

So after seeing the video again, the show swam around in my head for a few days, and then I decided to write to Sondheim. Here's my letter:
Dear Steve,

I had the great fun tonight of seeing a bootleg videotape of the original Merrily We Roll Along. I’ve always loved the score but have seen only mediocre productions before now. I was really surprised to find that it feels so much like the new, more ironic musicals being written today. While I watched it, a word came to mind that I never thought I’d associate with Merrilyferocious.

And as a result, I’m writing to ask if you’d ever consider letting us produce the original Broadway version of Merrily. Though I like the revised version a lot, I was surprised at how intense and how subtle and ambiguous the original version was. Honestly, the nastiness of “Rich and Happy” has always delighted me, but seeing the original staging made it even funnier and nastier, but also sadder. More Virginia Woolf than musical comedy. And I really saw that the show rests entirely on its acting. It made me wonder how it would work with actors in their 40s in the leads…

I realized watching the show that the graduation scene is important because what the older Frank is saying is essentially true, and the kids tune him out. It asks the audience to choose sides – idealist or realist? And when the kids start asking questions of “Mr. Shepard,” they’re asking nearly every one of us in the audience. Most people give up their dreams, so Frank is normal. It’s the first time I realized the show isn’t about letting go of your dreams; it’s about why and how people let go of their dreams. It’s not passing judgment, just exploring. I really want to try the show with the graduation scenes.

I think today’s audiences – especially our audiences, who’ve seen a lot of Sondheim on our stages – are ready (perhaps more than ever before) for the strange but compelling original style of the show. Plus we’re in a 200-seat theatre, so that allows for some outstanding, subtle acting. I would love to get a crack at making that original version work, if you’d allow us.

I’ll absolutely understand if you don’t want to, but I hope you’ll consider it. And if it doesn’t work as well as I think it will, nobody will even know about it, way out here in St. Louis…

Thanks for all your generosity to us over the years and for giving us such remarkable art to work on.

Scott Miller

Sondheim wrote back to me:
Dear Scott

Thanks for the letter, and I'm delighted that you'd like to do Merrily We Roll Along, but I really don't want the original version to be presented on the stage. There were many reasons that George and I changed it, and I won't bother to go into them now. Suffice to say that George would agree with me. Please forgive us, and once again thanks for wanting to do it.

Your Sincerely,
Stephen Sondheim

I was a little disappointed but I can't be pissed. It's his show, and I think that original production was very painful for him in various ways. It was genuinely ahead of its time in form and content, but it suffered the same fate as High Fidelity, BBAJ, and Cry-Baby, being produced on Broadway when it belonged off Broadway, and with a creative staff who didn't know what it was. Sondheim learned his lesson; his next project was Sunday in the Park with George, off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons with visual artist Jim Lapine.

Maybe someday I'll get to produce and direct the original version of Merrily. Maybe someday they'll let me. I don't know for sure that I can make it work, but I really think I can. I'm getting pretty good at directing neo musical comedies.

We're opening our 25th season next fall with the neo musical comedy Heathers. Can. Not. Wait.

Long Live the Musical!