Sunday, October 27, 2013

Rhymes with Integrity

Mark Umbers, Damian Humbley, and Jenna Russell
as Frank, Charley, and Mary
(reflection on the High Definition transmission of Merrily We Roll Along, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, directed by Maria Friedman.  Production at the Harold Pinter Theatre, summer of 2013.  Also, Stephen Sondheim's book, Finishing the Hat, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

About Stephen Sondheim, the commonplace comments are, "You can't hum his tunes," "His songs are too cerebral," and "He sure does know how to rhyme!"  Since I saw director Maria Friedman's 2013 revival of Merrily We Roll Along broadcast in HD from London last week, I've been marveling at how the plentiful rhymes in Sondheim's score sound as natural as conversation and yet bring home the characters' thoughts and feelings with a snap that makes the listener chuckle, or wince.  I've been humming two songs non-stop: from Act Two, "The Blob," and from Act One, "Growing Up."  And as soon as I realized why those two songs were haunting me, I had an oh-so-cerebral thought: "Growing Up," a late addition to the score, "rhymes" with everything else in the show, completing it in a way that snaps all of Merrily's pieces in place, character, story, and theme.

About Merrily, the commonplace comments are, "It's told backwards," "It was a fiasco in 1981 that ended Sondheim's collaboration with Hal Prince," and, "You don't like the main character." In Sondheim's own words...
Frank, the central figure, is entirely unsympathetic for the first half hour of the show.  He is arrogant, an adulterer, a betrayer of his best friend and the cause of near-suicidal alcoholism in the woman who loves him unrequitedly. (Sondheim 395)
Sondheim doesn't disagree:
I just happen to like stories about unsympathetic characters, because I trust the author to tell me why they interest him. That was the purpose of "Growing Up"...(396).
Four years after the short-lived run of Merrily on Broadway (so short-lived that I never got to use my tickets), director James Lapine revised it with Sondheim and  book writer George Furth. He suggested a song for the third scene to give the audience "a progress report on [Frank's] moral state." Sondheim obliged with a song that "allowed the audience to feel affection for Frank an hour earlier than they had in 1981."

So, in the fully-integrated version of the show, Frank sits down to a piano.  He's alone in an unfurnished room, trunks and suitcases unopened around him. He's back from a cruise, moving in to a new luxury apartment, beginning a new life after divorce.  His closest friends Charley and Mary met him here with his little son, but the joyful reunion almost fell apart in a disagreement about Frank's next move:  Will he collaborate with Charley on the political musical they've always wanted to write, or put that off another year or two to make money from Hollywood fluff?  They worked through their differences in the tense middle section of an otherwise joyful paean to "old friends." Mary and Charley have gone off to their old club while Frank waits for a phone call from Gussie, a Broadway star, wife of his producer / patron Joe. 

Because Merrily We Roll Along is told backwards, we know what's "ahead."  We've seen Frank, surrounded by sycophants, denounced by ex-friend Mary, despised by second wife Gussie, unable to tolerate even the mention of his ex-friend Charley, and proclaiming "I hate my life.  If I could go back and start over....!" 

But at this moment, there's a lot we don't know, yet.  This song anticipates it all.

Frank softly plays steady chords and hums a melody.  He sings, as if to Charley and Mary,
Thanks, old friends ...
Keep reminding me...
Frank's old friends
Always seem to come through.
Frank will, too. 
No tricky rhymes here, just a natural sounding statement of affection and gratitude. He continues his thoughts about the decisions ahead:
So, old friends,
Now it's time to start growing up.
Taking charge,
Seeing things as they are.
Facing facts,
Not escaping them,
Still with dreams,
Just reshaping them,
Growing up...

It's a gentle tune, reaching up in a way that feels positive.  The lyrics still feel like something a guy might say explaining himself across a table in a coffee house. 

Yet there's more going on, here:  The accompaniment for this song is from Frank's supposed hit song "Good Thing Going," which we'll hear first as a brassy Broadway anthem, but will eventually recognize to be lyricist Charley's gently regretful description of his friendship with Frank.

But, there's another resonance with Frank's "past." It's "The Blob," a song that we won't hear until late in the second act, when young Frank has been invited to a party in the luxury apartment of Gussie Carnegie, up-and-coming Broadway star.  He's all agog at the famous and sophisticated people there.  She mocks them (incidentally referring to a schlocky movie from the approximate time of the scene)
Meet the Blob,
The bodies you read about.
The ones who know everyone
That everyone knows...
Meet the Blob,
Not many and yet --
You never see one.
They come as a set.  (Sondheim 402)
This up-tempo tune, with the 1962-trendy Latin-American pulse in the accompaniment, is what Frank has been singing in "Growing Up."  Compare the first two lines of "The Blob"  to "So old friends, / Now it's time to start growing up...." 

Then there's an outburst of short musical phrases that twist around within an interval of just four steps in the scale,  a little like kids' sneering "nyeah- nyeah nyeah" on a playground: 

Charley is a hothead.
Charley won't budge.
Charley is a friend.

Charley is a screamer,
Charley won't bend.
Charley's in your corner.
We've heard that twisted little tune several times already.   It's the second motif of the overture.  It starts the innocent little figure that the keyboard plays early in the song "Franklin Shepard, Inc."  The song grows into a furious indictment of his pal's abandoning friends and ideas, and this same mocking motif snakes under most of the song.  We'll hear it again when Mary teaches Frank some philosophy, expressed in the wise-cracking way that Furth invented for her:
All right, now you know:
Life is crummy.
Well, now you know.
We hear it again in "The Blob," when Gussie mocks "the most important people / in the most important city / in the most important country / in the you-know-what!"

But, for now, in the song "Growing Up," Frank's outburst of anger grows to a high note on the word "change" before it subsides in the pair of lines that follow, which rhyme like an old adage:
Why is it old friends
Don't want old friends to change?
Every road has a turning,
That's the way you keep learning.
The "turning" of a "road" is a metaphor shared with the Kaufman and Hart play of the same title on which this musical is based, developed in the opening number, and repeated at transitions between scenes:   "Bending with the road, / Gliding through the countryside, / Merrily we roll along, / Roll along, / Catching at dreams" (384).

Frank's conclusion pulls all these strands together:
Trying things,
Being flexible,
Bending with the road,
Adding dreams
When the others don't last.
Growing up,
Understanding that growing never ends,
Like old dreams --
Frank qualifies this last one:
Some old dreams --
Like old friends.

The vamp returns for "Good Thing Going," and the song seems to be over.  But Gussie slips into the apartment.  Frank has made up his mind to meet his friends, to leave Gussie and her "blob" world behind, and he rebukes her when she tells him that she has just left her husband, Frank's patron and friend. Why now, asks Frank. "Because I saw tonight that I could lose you." She continues Frank's song:
Growing up
Means admitting
The things you want the most.
Can't pursue
Every possible line.
Folding tents,
Making choices,
Ignoring all
Other voices,
Including mine...
You're divine...
"You're divine" is a non-sequitur, but it keeps the integrity of the drama, as Gussie is turning from rhetoric to outright seduction.  The phrase is a bit far-fetched, but not for Gussie, whom George Furth endowed with memorably precious dialogue, as when she tells a party to "fermez all those bouches".  At this spot, where the twisty mocking motif comes in, Sondheim stretches it out in legato phrases, and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick brings in the saxophone to make it into a sultry tune:
You decide on what you want, darling,
Not on what you think you should.
Not on what you want to want, darling,
Not from force of habit.
Once it's clearly understood, darling,
Better go and grab it.
Things can slip away for good, darling.
What is it you really --?
She finishes with a come-hither gesture, and Frank follows her to the bedroom.  He's hooked.

But Frank fought the good fight, and every word of this song rings true. It's realism, it's common sense, it's appealing:  Who doesn't want to grow?  Who doesn't realize that realities change?  Who can't identify with "wanting to want" what one "should?" 

Every scene, every song in Merrily We Roll Along displays such integrity.  Why should Sondheim and Furth have taken such care to integrate music, lyrics, and dialogue, along with story, character, and theme?  They do it to create a world for the actors -- and audience -- to inhabit.  In an interview before the broadcast, Mark Umbers ("Frank") tells us that "Sondheim does all the work for you," unlike other writers who leave gaps for the actors to cover over.  Director Maria Friedman's staging and her cast's performances match the material in integrity and skill. Moment to moment, we feel that what we see and hear is really happening;  everything fits;  and, for the man who has lost his integrity, there is no escape from the consequences.

Happily, Friedman finds a way to emphasize a possibility for redemption at the very end.  When we first see Franklin in her production, he's pacing his living room, the site of that disastrous party, but he's considering a manuscript bound in red. Then follows the party where he says that he hates his life, and that, if he could go back, he'd start over.  When the play finishes with the beautifully hopeful anthem "Our Time," sung by young Frank, Mary, and Charley under the stars, all that fades away, and we're left again with Frank in that living room.  He's back to clutching the red manuscript, which we now recognize to be the play that he and Charley always wanted to complete.  Could he be ready for a new start?  There's hope.

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