Saturday, March 10, 2012

"How Did you Get to be Here?": Merrily We Roll Along

Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park cast of MERRILY / photo Sandy Underwood
Never having heard any of Stephen Sondheim's score for MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, and knowing little about the story, my friend Suzanne confirmed my judgement that this production, directed by John Doyle, hits home.  Suzanne grew tearful talking about the experience this morning.  The lyrics accurately spoke what she has thought as she has rolled along her own way in life, also wondering, "How did I get to be here?" 

She went on to cite "Not a Day Goes By," and how it turns from a rapturous song of youthful love and hope, to a statement of bitter regret; yet very little changes in the song itself.  It's an image of the way relationships really do alter over time without losing their original shape.

Both of us were strongly affected by a simple gesture in the final anthem "Our Time," when central character Franklin Shepherd laid his hands on the shoulders of the young man billed in the program as "Franklin Jr."   This college-age man, in a Juilliard tee shirt, started the show poring over a score from the archives of sheet music that comprise the set (reams of manuscript paper the backdrop; boxes and stacks of manuscript paper the furniture).   From the first chords that the middle-aged Franklin Shepherd plays at the piano, he seems to direct the entire show at the younger man -- trying to justify himself to the younger man.  Other members of the cast, seeing the young man, ask him "How did you get to be here?"  Suzanne was confused, but I was no more certain of who exactly "Franklin Jr." was:  Franklin at a younger age?   Franklin's son?  At times, he was clearly portraying the son at age 3 or 6 or 10.  He could be Franklin's grown and estranged son trying to understand his father.  

Suzanne and I decided that a definitive answer isn't necessary.   What matters is that gesture, hands on the shoulders, a sign of investiture and benediction.  By that time, the middle-aged Franklin has worked backwards through some bitter memories to memories of youthful struggles and hopes with friends Mary and Charley.  This "Franklin Jr." has been witness, often anguished and accusing.  At the end of the show, the "beginning" of its characters' friendship on a rooftop in 1957, he also seems to have come out onto the roof to see Sputnik -- not the Russians' triumph alone, but for all of us, they say -- and Franklin Sr. lays those hands on him.

In John Doyle's production, there's no doubt.  We're to leave the theatre energized to go forward ready to get started:  "There's so much stuff to sing."

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