The Musical vs. The Original Play
Posted by: rvs 04:53 pm EST 02/08/24
In reply to: re: MERRILY-- A naysayer's review - AlanScott 05:54 am EST 02/08/24

I saw the original in previews, it was a total mess. Beth was still singing “Not A Day Goes By.” Right before they opened, they took that song away from Beth and gave it to Frank. I’m guessing they felt Frank needed a song to make him more sympathetic.

Unfortunately it had the opposite effect. Frank sings to her not a day goes by that I won’t think about you. But we’ve already seen the future, and in that long first act, he never said a word about Beth. So clearly yes days went by that he didn’t think about her.

This was the only time Sondheim ever took a song away from one character and handed it to another. His material doesn’t work like that. It’s not a man’s song, it’s a woman’s song. Men divorce and get married again. Women often don’t. (Classic line from The Golden Girls. Someone says to Dorothy, “You need a man.” Her response: “No thanks. Had one.”)

The problem with Merrily was never the chronology, the musical bends over backwards to make it clear what year it is. The problem has always been that Frank is a four-star shit. In the original production, it was clear, even in the final scenes, he had his eyes on the prize and will steamroll over anyone to get where he wants to go.

In the current production, Frank sings “Growing Up” which should make him more sympathetic, but it’s self-absorption. I’m happy, though, they gave “Not A Day Goes By” back to Beth.

I had no idea Mary was in love with him till she sang the reprise of “Not a Day Goes By” in the second act. From the current cast album, they cleared that up during “Like It Was” with Charlie coming right out and SAYING she loved Frank.

The legend is that Judy Prince said to her husband, “Why don’t you do a show about young people? You know, those creatures running around our apartment.” He was shaving one morning and he said, “Merrily We Roll Along! That’s what I want to say with this.”

That’s when it was dead in the water. It was no longer about young people, it was about Hal Prince’s thoughts on what happens to us as we get older.

The original play was cleverly structured. In each scene, the characters are heading in a specific direction. But we learned in the previous scene, they end up somewhere completely different. The tension (such as it was) came from waiting to see how they were going to end up elsewhere. It always came from a choice made by a different character. The choice seems minor at the moment, but we know from what we’ve scene it’ll have major consequences. And the choice was always made by the one character you didn’t expect. So the original play wasn’t about how idealism curdles as we get older, it’s about the choices we make in life.

In the musical, there’s only one moment where someone makes that kind of choice. In “Opening Doors,” “What about the girl?”, “Well, Mary …”, “I don’t perform except at dinner.” A small glib choice, but it opens the door to Beth, and Mary loses Frank.

In the opening scene of the original musical, Mary pushed Gussie in the pool. In the play, Mary throws iodine in Gussie’s eyes. Gussie is blinded, Mary is headed for jail, and Frank’s career as a playwright comes to an end. Everyone’s lives are destroyed. The play isn’t a comedy, it includes betrayal, alcoholism, suicide, etc. Sondheim, Prince, and Furth had to twist themselves in knots to make this material a comedy.

It wasn’t until I listened to the current cast album that I finally came to accept it’s not a good show. It’s full of statements (Sondheim used to say “Never make a statement”) and Frank is a hard sell for a central character.

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