The Musical That Should Have Knocked ’em Dead
Merrily We Roll Along rolls onto a BU stage
In the slide show above, Ben Thompson (CFA’10) and Farrell Parker (SHA’10) discuss Merrily We Roll Along.
Everyone expected Merrily We Roll Along to be a hit. A 1981 collaboration between Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince, the creative forces behind West Side Story, Company, Follies, and Sweeney Todd, the show had the promise of being a musical sensation.
But Merrily We Roll Along didn’t live up to the hype. While the play was acclaimed for its dazzling score, it was panned for its unlikable characters, unconventional narrative, and downer storyline. It closed after only 16 performances.
Jim Petosa, director of the College of Fine Arts school of theatre, was one of the few to have caught the show during its initial debut. Says Petosa: “I thought it was a terrible production of an extraordinary story.”
Revised several times, Merrily We Roll Along failed several times, although it did develop a cult following among Sondheim enthusiasts. Its insistent spiral into obscurity, says Petosa, is precisely why he selected it as CFA’s current theatrical production.
“To teach from this piece is fantastic,” Petosa says. “The quality of the score and lyrics is undeniable, but it also has a problematic book that’s tough to interpret.”
The BU production features students from the school of theatre as well as non–theater majors from other schools and colleges. “We’ve never done this before,” Petosa says, “and we’re very excited at the prospect of opening our doors to collaboration with the larger student population.”
This production isn’t the first time Petosa has directed Merrily We Roll Along. When the show closed in 1981, he wrote asking Sondheim if he could put it on at Catholic University. “I was a graduate student at the time,” he says, “and I thought the play really spoke to young people, specifically young artists.”
Much to his surprise, Sondheim mailed him photocopies of the original Broadway script and faxed him the score. The production failed, but it was nonetheless “a thrilling experience,” Petosa says. “Audiences came in great numbers to see this Sondheim musical that everyone hated.”
Merrily We Roll Along is the not-very-merry story of Franklin Shepard, a gifted composer who sacrifices his friends and ideals to become a commercial film producer. Based on the 1934 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play of the same name, the musical opens in 1976 Los Angeles, where Franklin is savoring the success of his latest Hollywood blockbuster.
Each successive scene jumps back in time, taking the audience on a journey through Shepard’s betrayal-filled quest for fame. When it reaches 1957, Shepard is seen standing on the rooftop of a New York apartment building with his best friends, Charley and Mary. Sputnik orbits overhead, and the young artists toast to the future, vowing to always be true to their principles, and more important, to one another.
“The ending is heartbreaking,” Petosa says, “and I think it becomes a cautionary tale. We can choose to move through life by making decisions that speak to our hearts and our better natures, or not. That’s a powerful story for young people to grapple with.”
Rather than look at Merrily We Roll Along as a story of abandoned values, Petosa prefers to see it as one of hope. “You can’t be a young artist without having some degree of idealism,” he says. “Merrily We Roll Along commands us to treasure that energy, safeguard it for as long as we can.”
Merrily We Roll Along opens today, April 29, at 10 a.m., at the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, and repeats tonight at 7:30 p.m., Friday, April 30, and Saturday, May 1, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, May 2, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $10 for seniors, students, members of the BU community (ID required), WGBH members, and Huntington Theatre Company subscribers; members of the BU community receive one free ticket with BU ID at the door on the day of performance, subject to availability. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 617-933-8600, or in person at the BU Theatre box office. Follow the College of Fine Arts on Twitter at @BUArts.