“The Far Country,” “Merrily We Roll Along” and Revues

I should declare a conflict of interest. Lloyd Suh is a former student of mine. I have no idea what, if anything, he got from our classes a couple of decades ago at the New School, but he made a vivid impression on me at the time and I have followed his work with particular interest and pleasure.

His The Far Country (playing at the Atlantic Theater) is a rare thing–an intimate play on an epic subject: the strategies and tactics that arose in the Chinese community to cope with an 1882 law designed to keep Chinese from immigrating into the United States. What particularly strikes me is that Suh suggests that the patent racism and immorality of the law in turn generated corruption within the community it was enacted to oppress. A figure who easily earns the audience’s sympathy because of abuse suffered at the hands of American officialdom surprises and disappoints us when he has no hesitation about exploiting others in turn. Suh observes this with a cool, ironic tone, so it comes as a happy surprise when the last person in the chain of victimization turns out to act out of a reservoir of kindness. I’ve been thinking lately about how much drama these days is rooted in the assumption that human beings generally will disappoint, so it is moving for once to encounter a character who surprises by her compassion and generosity. In the middle of the larger, sadder tale Suh has to tell, he offers us a bit of hope. It’s a provocative play being given a crisp production by director Eric Ting.

Hope ultimately is in short supply in Merrily We Roll Along, the musical that composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer George Furth fashioned out of the 1934 George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play of the same title. That is part of the show’s fascination and part of its problem.

One of the benefits of being a long-serving member of the Dramatists Guild Council (and on which Suh now serves) is that, over the years, I had regular encounters with writers I grew up admiring. When the musical version of Merrily was announced, I remember running into Sondheim before a meeting, and we got to talking about the opportunities the peculiar structure of the piece offered. (As you probably know, the show tells its story backward, beginning with the leading characters embittered in middle age and ending with them full of optimism at the end.) I remember saying to him, “Let me guess: some of the thematic material that sounds harsh at the beginning of the score will get simpler and less complicated till it emerges as purer and more openly melodic at the end.” Sondheim gave me a big grin and an exaggerated nod as if to say, “Oh, the fun I’m going to have!” And, yes, he did that, but he also did something I had not anticipated: he introduced songs by what would in an ordinary show be their reprises. (This is particularly effective in the case of the gorgeous “Not a Day Goes By,” which we first hear sung in anger by an embittered wife and then hear as a wedding pledge.) One of Sondheim’s key maxims is that “content dictates form,” and a choice like this in his score for Merrily exemplifies this.

But it is also why this show, which ends with the joyous and optimistic song, “Our Time,” is ultimately depressing. We know from the first scene where the road for the three main characters will lead – to alcoholism, adultery, and the betrayal of talent and relationships. As the show unfolds, the characters get younger and more charming and more endearing, but we can’t help but being reminded that at least two of them (Franklin, the composer, and Mary, the novelist and film critic) will end up lost and bitter.

I saw the original production of the musical in 1981 and, no, despite the marvelous score, that version didn’t work. It was director Hal Prince’s concept to have all of the characters played by young performers, so, as the show began, some were playing characters who were something like two decades older than their actual ages. It wasn’t quite Bugsy Malone, but those opening scenes lacked weight. In this production, directed by Maria Friedman, Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez and Daniel Radcliffe aren’t exactly grizzled, but they carry sufficient maturity to make us buy the early scenes featuring the older versions of their characters. (Radcliffe, who is actually the youngest of the three leading actors, first appears in the second scene, when everyone is three years younger than in scene one.) It also helps that the cast isn’t (as in Prince’s production) costumed in T-shirts with the characters’ names on them.

I still wrestle with the essential pessimism of the show. Merrily We Roll Along is a big, bouncy musical about the inevitability that most of our lives will nosedive into disappointment. (OK, Charlie Kringas, the playwright played by Radcliffe, ends up with a happy marriage and a hit play, but we don’t get to see that.) It’s hard to tap your toes to despair. At the end of his journey, having taken the measure of the difference between where he started and where he ended up and why, Franklin Shepard seems primed to respond by doing … not much.

It makes me think of the different connotations of the word “conclusion.” One meaning is the end of something – the last image, or word, or note of a work. Another meaning is what we come to believe as a result of our reasoning something through. In Merrily, what we come to believe is that if you betray your central ideals, you’re liable to make a mess of your life. But the final song in the show, its conclusion (save that short coda with Franklin Shepard left alone with his thoughts) is the song “Our Time,” which is hopeful and joyous. So, to my mind the two conclusions of Merrily are in opposition.

For historical reasons, I am particularly taken with the sequence set in 1961 in a Greenwich Village nightclub in which Franklin, Charlie and Franklin’s fiancée Beth perform a lightly satiric song called “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” about John F. Kennedy bringing his extended family to Washington, DC. At first listen, it seems like a pastiche of the sort of clever number that might have appeared in a Julius Monk revue. (If you don’t know who Julius Monk was, Google is your friend. If you like musical theater, you should know the part he played in many major writing and performing careers.) But then, a level of irony kicks in. The song is about how JFK will be followed by his brothers and children and extended family into a glorious new age of progressive governance. We smile indulgently at the gentle humor, and then we remember the tragedy that marked so many of the Kennedy lives. We see the shadows of what is to come that Franklin, Charlie and Beth can’t. Just as they can’t anticipate their own difficult futures, futures we have already glimpsed.

In this section, Sondheim and Furth reference the place such low-budget, light entertainments used to occupy in the New York theater scene. Many years ago, I had the occasion to talk briefly with Jerry Herman about how he managed to land the assignment of his first Broadway score. He told me that he did what the characters in Merrily do: he put up low-budget musical revues in Greenwich Village to showcase himself. It worked. The shows led to him being engaged to write the scores of first Milk and Honey and then Hello, Dolly! It wasn’t a strategy he invented. Some kids named Betty Comden and Adolph Green followed the same path more than a dozen years before when they created an act called The Revuers that led to them being engaged to write book and lyrics (and star in) On the Town.

Most of the major musical theater teams of the postwar era had experience in this arena. For years, every season saw a handful of young talent, usually nattily attired in coordinated suits and dresses and accompanied by a piano, cracking wise about sex, politics, and culture. (Check out the Chad Mitchell Trio’s version of a song called “Barry’s Boys,” mocking Goldwater conservatives. It originated in a Julius Monk show.) As the rock scene grew, the revue form faded away. The most famous venue, Upstairs at the Downstairs, just west of Fifth Avenue on 56th Street, closed in 1974 after thirty years.

I think musical theater lost something with the decline of this form. The revue (mostly off-Broadway, but occasionally on) trained developing writers in how to write tuneful, accessible songs tailored to the specific talents and personalities of their casts. It also trained them to know when they had made their point and to move on. Every season I see musicals whose writers would have profited from learning these lessons.

As I write this, I remember that I was part of a modest effort to revive the form. In 1977, I was part one of the writers of an off-Broadway entertainment made up of songs and sketches called The Present Tense that played in a long-gone space on the top floor of a hotel on West 73rd Street. It was produced by (believe it or not) Roger Ailes (who was deeply unpleasant even then) and directed by Stephen Rosenfield. Some very good people were in the cast and contributed material (one of our songs was by a promising guy named Alan Menken). It was probably most notable for introducing Lee S. Wilkof, who won a much-deserved Obie and went on to be the original Seymour in Alan’s Little Shop of Horrors and to direct a terrific film called No Pay, Nudity about the actor’s life in New York. And no, our effort did not succeed in reviving the form.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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2 Responses to “The Far Country,” “Merrily We Roll Along” and Revues

  1. Thanks Jeff. I was a limited partner in the original Merrily, attended its opening and over the next few weeks had correspondence with Hal Prince regarding what I felt worked and didn’t. I remember he was particularly receptive and engaged. A fascinating time.

  2. dgsweet says:

    Interesting it started as a show designed to feature teenagers and turned into a show that would be ruined if played by teenagers.

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