The Ubiquity of Sondheim
The Stephen Sondheim resurgence in New York continues unabated, with two smash hit revivals running concurrently on Broadway in the fall, along with the posthumous world premiere of the late composer-lyricist’s last work and, for good measure, a sold-out weekend’s worth of concert performances of one of his most obscure shows. The latter, MasterVoices’ charming mounting of The Frogs, a strange, inconsistent, but entertaining mashup of Ancient Greek comedy, contemporary satire, and music hall humor, was a treat for Sondheim connoisseurs. The longer running of the revivals to date, Sweeney Todd, was covered previously in these pages. It shows no signs of slowing down, and a replacement cast has already been announced: Aaron Tveit and Sutton Foster (both of whom seem far too American for their roles, but nobody asked me). We’ll get to the other revival, Merrily We Roll Along, later. The new show, Here We Are, was certainly the theatrical event of the fall, an exhilarating and privileged opportunity to savor Sondheim’s final composition, even though the work itself is clearly unfinished and ultimately not successful.
Sondheim and his librettist, David Ives, based Here We Are on two world cinema classics from the great director Luis Buñuel: The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). In the first, a savagely funny black-and-white Mexican horror film, a group of aristocrats are mysteriously trapped in an elegant home following a dinner party. The source of their imprisonment is not physical but existential—an inchoate fear that they can barely acknowledge, let alone articulate. (Edward Albee would use this same device in A Delicate Balance.) As their captivity extends into days and weeks, the bonds of propriety begin to collapse, and a chaotic primitivism emerges. In the second film, a colorful French farce, a group of upper-middle-class friends attempts to have dinner together but find themselves continually thwarted by a series of increasingly bizarre impediments: scheduling mistakes, obstreperous servants and waiters, food shortages, revolution, dissolving fourth walls. Here We Are combines these two stories, turning Discreet Charm’s search for a meal into the first act, and Angel’s post-meal entrapment into the second. The characters are modernized, Americanized versions of Discreet Charm’s French haute bourgeoisie, and it is that film’s giddy, flippant ethos that predominates, even when the plot segues into Angel’s depiction of social collapse.
Here We Are faces two handicaps, one surmountable and one fatal. The show is being presented at the off-Broadway Griffin Theater, located in the newish performing arts center at Hudson Yards, The Shed. This complex disappoints on virtually every count: a cheerless, uninviting auditorium with poorly engineered access from a cramped lobby, all within a soulless neighborhood that’s hard to get to from almost everywhere. Even good shows struggle to work there. The second handicap is that Here We Are (a title that was only locked in earlier this year, after a decade of alternatives) was unfinished at Sondheim’s death in November 2021, at the age of 91. The musical had been in the works since at least 2012 and had undergone multiple readings, workshops, and false-start production announcements. The director Joe Mantello joined the development process in 2016. As was his wont, Sondheim worked slowly and, after all that time, had only managed to compose most of the first-act songs and a handful of numbers for the second. Apparently, as extensively narrated in an article in New York Magazine, Sondheim, Ives, and Mantello concluded, following a reading of the work-in-progress two months before Sondheim’s death, that the second act did not need any more music. The lack of songs once the characters found themselves entrapped seemed to make sense: imprisoned characters would have nothing to sing about, right? On this basis, according to Ives and Mantello, Sondheim authorized a full-scale production.
Did this really happen? Would Sondheim have approved of the production that opened last fall, which features a more-or-less complete score in the first act and then, after three songs at the beginning of the second act, nothing besides bits of underscoring pulled from the existing tune-stack? We’ll never know, of course. But the whole enterprise feels suspect, not least because one of the three numbers in the second act comes after the entrapment begins, giving the lie to the excuse that imprisonment would negate song. More importantly, there are moments throughout the second act in which a song clearly feels intended, most particularly a dialogue scene between a rogue bishop (David Hyde Pierce) and Marianne, the central female character (Rachel Bay Jones), which all but begs for the kind of intricate duet that was a Sondheim specialty. In addition, it’s certain that most of the songs would have evolved, if not outright changed, once Here We Are had gone into rehearsals and previews. Sondheim was famous for working on his shows until the last possible minute, delivering an immortal song that transformed a shaky act just a night or two before opening on more than one occasion. Without question, what is onstage at The Shed would have been very different had Sondheim lived.
The patently unfinished nature of the show is a problem. The lack of music in the second act makes for a sketchy final hour. Themes that build and develop in the first act peter away in the second, and characters lose their flavor. Those issues would surely have been solved had Sondheim been able to finish his work. A more intractable problem lies in the nature of the source material. Both films are routinely described as surrealist, and Buñuel was indeed one of the great artists of that style at the beginning of his career, particularly in his epochal collaborations with Salvador Dalí, Un chien Andalou and L’age d’or. But although both Discreet Charm and Angel occasionally pull from the surrealist playbook, they are essentially absurdist in nature, concerned not so much with expressing the roiling psychology of the personae through dreamlike imagery as they are with subverting any notions of realism, of cause and effect, of plot logic, of consistent character. Discreet Charm in particular is a hard film to grasp. I’ve seen it four times, and I’d still have trouble outlining every sequence and the order they come in.
Following a plot is not really the point, though, nor is empathizing with the characters. By this point in his career, Buñuel would certainly have considered naturalistic psychology to be a bourgeois cliché and irrelevant to his project of destabilizing the conventions of character and narrative that uphold hegemony. This makes for exciting filmmaking and, in the hands of theater artists with Brechtian sensibilities, it could work beautifully. But Sondheim is inherently an artist of psychological detail, of the nuances and complexities of character and narrative development that reveal truth and create bonds of identification between audience and stage. He can play with the tropes of presentational theater, the electricity of breaking the fourth wall, as he does to powerful effect in Sweeney Todd and Pacific Overtures, but these examples are trimmings, riffs on top of essentially realistic worldviews.
In Here We Are, Sondheim is forced to write music for characters who don’t really exist as characters. They are deliberate types, and deliberately inconsistent types at that. The result is an uneasy mismatch of what the play is saying and how it is said. In Discreet Charm, the characters barely register that the happenings around them are strange and ultimately nonsensical. The joke is that they blithely keep moving on from failed dinner to failed dinner. Here We Are can’t help but make the characters seem unnerved. They react as you or I would. They acknowledge the absurdity, which deflates its purpose. Similarly, in Exterminating Angel, the implications of revolutionary violence that fill the margins of the narrative are a device, not meant in any literal way. Sondheim and Ives grab onto them, grateful for any sense of motivation, and turn them into a theme.
Here We Are also vastly simplifies the levels of dreams and digressions that make the films so deliciously mysterious. That kind of movement among levels of subjectivity works in film through dissolves, fades, and camera movements: tools not available in the theater which privileges the objective viewpoint of each audience member. As a result, the musical moves horizontally, from plot point to plot point, rather than vertically through layers of distorted reality. This certainly helps pull the two halves of the musical together in sensible ways, but the characters that Here We Are inherited from Buñuel can’t carry the weight of Sondheim’s art. They don’t inspire great work from him, and the bits of empathy he provides them just feel random. The project of absurdism in art is to shut down meaning. In his movies, Buñuel bracingly resists interpretation. Everything we see is in our own mind, not his. It’s not so much that meaning is excised, but rather that it’s frustrated. Sondheim, on the other hand, is supremely interested in meaning—his art exists to explicate.
Perhaps all this makes it sound like Here We Are should not have been produced, or that it is a dreary failure. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the show, as presented at The Shed, is remarkably entertaining, and never less than engrossing. What I’ve consistently heard from fellow fans is: “It was so much better than I expected.” This is partly because of Mantello’s first-class production, partly because of the mostly superb cast, and partly because the art of Sondheim transcends the misalliance with the material and the clearly unfinished aspects of the score. The incompletion is a moot point, of course. There is nothing to be done about it, other than hiring a sympathetic composer and lyricist to write the missing songs and refine the existing material. Perhaps such an experiment would be interesting down the road, but for a world premiere the audience should hear Sondheim’s work unadulterated, for better or worse.
The music is definitely late Sondheim, well within the concentrated, spare sound world that first emerged in 1994’s Passion. Entire passages feel like quotes from that score. The interstitial traveling music that accompanies the hapless peregrinations of the dinner party in the first act refracts and dwindles the similar music in Into the Woods. Still, much of the music is bold and gutsy, with a handful of standout songs. These include a showstopper for a waiter (Denis O’Hare) in the first act, entitled (as best as I can guess; the tune-stack is not itemized in the program) “I Am So Sorry,” in which the list of what the restaurant does not offer proceeds in hilarious fashion, a great example of a number made funny by its music as much as by its lyrics. The bishop, who randomly enters the story toward the end of the first act, sings a wonderful number about being a terrible priest. And Marianne, the only somewhat sympathetic character in the show, has a gorgeous song in the second act (just before the music disappears) in which she tries to capture the notion of memory in a setting where that phenomenon is becoming elusive.
If Sondheim’s music is nowhere near the peak of his great 1970s and ’80s shows, his lyrics are still remarkably dexterous. In the aforementioned waiter’s song, the lyric “We do expect a little latte later, / But we haven’t got a lotta latte now” got mid-song applause, and a frisson ran through the theater as we all recognized a quintessential Sondheim turn of phrase. As always, he planted phrases throughout the score, like leitmotifs: the opening number’s “a perfect day,” which recurs at the end of both acts and gives Marianne her telling variation when she asks her husband Leo (Bobby Cannavale) to “buy this perfect day”; the notion of “Square One” as a reset after each plot detour (that phrase would have made a better title for the show, in my opinion).
It’s disappointing that some of the biggest numbers are given to non-singers, including O’Hare and the otherwise marvelous Pierce, a performer so beloved that he gets entrance as well as exit applause. Superb singers like Steven Pasquale and Amber Gray get frustratingly few chances to show their chops. The excellent Micaela Diamond and Jin Ha, representing the youthful point of view as a rich rebel and a soldier, get to soar a bit with their duet, which is reprised in the second act. In addition to Cannavale, excellent actors like Jeremy Shamos and Tracie Bennett sparkle in their abbreviated but piquant moments. But the highlight of the cast, both musically and dramatically, is the indispensable Jones. As a friend said, she could brush her hair and make you care. Marianne emerges as the heart of the show, its emotional center. This fact is a betrayal of Buñuel’s intentions, but with a performer as rich as Jones, empathy will not be denied.
Mantello keeps things fast and funny and stimulating, abetted mainly by his superb set and costume designer, David Zinn. The first act plays out against a dazzling white, blank backdrop, an abstract space into which simple set pieces descend and define the various places in which the characters desperately try to eat something. When they reach the home where their hunger will finally be sated at the end of the first act (and where they will find themselves entrapped in the second), the scenic approach changes drastically, and suddenly we’re in a richly designed, heavily decorated, wood-paneled space. Mantello does the best he can with the incomplete second act, keeping the pacing steady despite the dearth of songs. At the very end of the show, as the characters escape the apocalyptic world of Angel and re-enter the seemingly safe world of Discreet Charm, Mantello delivers a final coup de théâtre: as the dinner party guests disperse, they pause and then turn and rush toward the audience with expressions of rage, freezing in a quick blackout. The catastrophic forces unleashed in the second act cannot be recouped. They are loose in the world, and the discreet world of the bourgeoisie will never be the same.
One of the pleasures of the recent Sondheim resurgence has been the ability to contemplate shows from different stages of his long career. Here We Are is of course a late work, for better or worse. The 2021 revival of Company captured the excitement of the moment in which Sondheim first found his mature voice, back in 1970. And the current revival of Merrily We Roll Along makes clear that this show was the fulcrum of his career. The highly public failure of the original Broadway production in 1981 was devastating for the composer. It triggered the dissolution of his relationship with director Hal Prince and the temporary disruption of that with orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and led to a dramatically new style of composition which incorporated influences from Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Merrily was the sixth of the Sondheim/Prince “concept musicals”: shows in which form followed content, and the structure, staging and style were harnessed to express thematic points (think Pacific Overtures, which combined Kabuki and Broadway theatrical approaches to tell the story of the intersection of Japanese and American culture in the late nineteenth century). The previous five Sondheim/Prince works had dominated the 1970s, changing the face of the art form, earning countless awards, and generating hundreds of think pieces and dinner party debates. Now, with Merrily, Prince and Sondheim had a new concept: a modern rewrite of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s identically titled 1934 play which depicted three best friends whose relationship collapses as they pursue artistic and commercial success. Kaufman and Hart’s gimmick was to tell the story backwards, starting with scenes of disappointment, compromise, and regret, and ending with heartbreaking idealism. Sondheim and Prince moved the story to the present, turned the play’s playwright and painter into a composer and lyricist, and fleshed out the psychology of the characters with songs that dug deep.
Prince also embraced a staging and casting concept that proved disastrous: he deliberately sought callow, untrained, young (late teens/early twenties) performers, hoping to evoke a sort of “Mickey & Judy Let’s-Put-on-a-Show” energy. And he set the show in a plain, clumsily designed high school gymnasium, the setting for the graduation which opens the show. Franklin Shepard, a wealthy, famous composer and movie producer, and a 25th anniversary alumnus of the school, tells the graduating seniors that compromise and reduced expectations are inevitable. The idealistic students challenge him, forcing him to go step by step back into the past as he tries to understand where and how he lost his principles. At the same time, he unravels his intensely loving and ultimately estranged relationships with his best friends, fellow alumnus and lyricist Charley Kringas and novelist Mary Flynn. As the show progresses in reverse chronological order, the themes of personal and professional compromise become inextricably tied to the dissolution of the central friendships.
That at least was the structure of the original production. After its failure, Sondheim and his librettist, George Furth, substantially reworked the show over a series of revivals, eventually settling on an authorized new version that has been the basis for every production over the last two decades. And there have been many productions. In fact, Merrily We Roll Along is almost certainly the most revived flop show in Broadway history. The current production, the first on Broadway since the original, is not a resurrection of a long-forgotten work but rather the inevitable return of a musical that has gradually become as popular and beloved as Sondheim’s more immediately successful shows. This production, directed by the actress Maria Friedman, is much traveled. It began at London’s enterprising Menier Chocolate Factory in 2012, transferred to the West End from where it was widely seen on a live broadcast in cinemas, popped up at Boston’s Huntington Theater in 2017, and finally made its way to the New York Theatre Workshop in late 2022 with the current cast. I saw it there and again last fall at the Hudson Theater in its Broadway transfer.
I need to preface any analysis of Merrily We Roll Along with the declaration that I am in the sizable camp that believes that Sondheim and Furth’s revised version is maddeningly inferior to the original text. The major change is the elimination of the framing graduation scenes. Originally, the contemporary Frank, speaking to the young students, is forced by them to examine his past, delving ever deeper into the sources of his anomie. The title song, which recurs throughout the show as transitional music from year to (previous) year, is a deliberate provocation, a goad by the contemporary students to keep digging: “How did you get there from here?” they ask. “Which is the moment and where?” “How did you get to be you?” At the end of the original production, we finally arrive at young Frank’s high school graduation, and suddenly the moment is juxtaposed with the older Frank, still at his 25th anniversary, edified but devastated by the excavation of the past and forced to confront his younger, optimistic self. The layering of past and present is emotionally overwhelming and, not incidentally, central to the meaning of the show. All of this is eliminated in the revised version of the show. The title song is now not a motivating driver of the show’s backward trajectory, but rather a vaguely abstract expression of its theme by an unidentified chorus of random commentators. And the interstitial reprises have lost their pointed intensity and just feel like gauzy scene change music. The elimination of the framing device was not the only bad decision in the revised version. The role of Gussie, Frank’s second wife, was significantly expanded, turning a small, broadly portrayed character into a large, campy caricature. And in an attempt to make Frank more sympathetic, Sondheim provided him with a dreary song called “Growing Up,” which only makes the character seem more solipsistic than ever.
The first scenes of Merrily have always been its most problematic, thanks to the backward chronology. Seeing disillusioned, jaded people at the beginning of a show is challenging: who are these unhappy characters, and why should we care about them? In the original version, the graduation scene depicts Frank at a moment of existential crisis, desperate to understand what went wrong. That feels relatable. In the revised version, we meet him at a party at his Los Angeles mansion, a moment of cynical, empty triumph, a parody of Faustian success. The original production cut these early, cynical scenes to the bone, in a hurry to get to the moments in the past where the characters were happy and connected. The revised version significantly expands what is now the first scene, the hideously awful party after the opening of Frank’s new film. The scene plays like a child’s vision of what mean, jaded grownups are like. Furth’s dialogue is so arch and Sondheim’s song “That Frank” so superficial, that the show is hard pressed to recover. In fact, it does not find its groove again until the second act. In truth, Merrily is the extremely rare musical that has always had major first act problems, unlike the standard second act woes that bedevil most musicals. The last 20 minutes of Merrily are unfailingly marvelous and heartbreaking. Which of course makes total sense given the backward structure, since so many problematic shows start with a bang and then run into trouble halfway through.
So the new Broadway Merrily is handicapped from the start by the misguided rewrites. Why did Sondheim and Furth allow this new version to become standard? One can only surmise that they were so traumatized by the critical and popular reaction to the original production—a reaction, I would hold, that had much more to do with the staging than the material—that they wanted to move as far away from that version as possible. I’ll admit that Merrily is a work that has massive personal resonance for me. Many theater fans have a show that hits them with force at a certain moment in late adolescence. This is often a show maudit, a work which strove for greatness but was misunderstood by the masses. For the generations that came before me, shows like Candide and Follies filled that role. For me, it was Merrily. I had read the scathing reviews. And then I heard the thrilling original cast album and thought that the critics and public had lost their minds. It’s still a desert island disc for me. The cast, which apparently came off as amateurish on stage, perform on this recording as if their lives depended on it. The sense of joy and despair and exuberance is still overwhelming. The show has been better cast in the multiple revivals, but nothing will ever top the lightning that the original cast album captures. Most thrillingly, the interstitial reprises of the title song that punctuate the disc are absolutely electrifying. It’s as if the pounding orchestra is driving Frank relentlessly back into the past, forcing him to find out where it all went wrong, never relenting. The revival’s reduced orchestra can’t even begin to capture that excitement.
Friedman’s take on the show is to center Frank in the narrative, replacing the framing graduation scenes with an image of the disillusioned composer alone on stage at the beginning and end of the show, an image that lacks the specific anguish of the graduation device. The New York Times picked up on this choice and declared that the production had changed the show from a depiction of a trio of friends to a depiction of a narcissistic monster who destroys everyone he meets. I beg to differ. Frank is ambitious, and at times he is a user. But there is no question that he truly adores Charley and Mary and wants the best for them. Frank is a narcissist, but he’s a charming and loving one. Merrily We Roll Along is about a lot of things, but above all, it is about friendship. Every moment of emotional expansion in the show relates to the intense relationship among the three central characters. All else is frankly background (hence the mistake in enlarging the role of Gussie). Merrily is not about a jerk who betrays his friends. It’s not about a sellout versus two purists. Rather, it’s about people who love each other deeply but who have different needs and goals. It’s about one of the great and universal sadnesses in life: friendship drift. It’s about dear friends who don’t allow each other to change. Frank’s tragedy is that he forgets how to be a friend—but so does Charley. Mary never forgets—and that is her tragedy.
Sondheim foregrounds this theme of friendship drift in the scene that is, for me, the emotional center of the show and a moment that is often misunderstood. Finding themselves at a party where they must try out their material for a wealthy producer, Frank plays and Charley sings “Good Thing Going,” which we understand to be a song they’ve written for a potential new work. It seems odd at first that Sondheim places the most beautiful, traditional ballad of Merrily in this presentational scene, seemingly divorced from the actual narrative of the show. And yet “Good Thing Going” is directly, if accidentally, about the intense relationship between Frank and Charley. It is Charley’s manifesto, his expression of deep, platonic love for Frank, a love that he already senses will not be returned in the same measure. He sings, “And if I wanted too much, was that such a mistake at the time? / You never wanted enough. All right, tough, I don’t make that a crime.” Charley will always need Frank more than Frank needs Charley. In his generic lyric, written for a character in the show they are composing, Charley exposes these subliminal feelings about Frank and prophesies the friendship’s ultimate demise.
Critics and audiences have said that the new production of Merrily “solves” the show, and I’m glad they’re enjoying it, but I don’t buy into that narrative. In fact, I don’t think Friedman’s production is even particularly good: the set is bland, the supporting cast egregiously over-play their roles (this was worse off-Broadway; the larger Broadway house helps mitigate the more histrionic offenders), and the musical staging is pedestrian at best. What makes this production work, despite these issues, is the superbly balanced casting of the three leads. Much of the press around the show has focused on how they have, apparently, developed a marvelously close offstage friendship which informs their onstage chemistry. Whether this is true or brilliant PR is perhaps irrelevant as the onstage connection is undeniable. None of the three principals in this production of Merrily is individually the best I’ve ever seen in his or her respective roles. But as a balanced trio, they are unmatched.
Jonathan Groff plays Frank, and the actor leans into his supernatural likability to smooth the character’s edges and draw us close to him from the start. It’s probably the best work he’s done on stage, and an ideal fit of actor and role. Groff’s ability to be adorable even when the character is exasperating helps the audience understand why Mary and Charley—and indeed everyone else—want to be connected to Frank, no matter what he does. Lindsay Mendez is superb as the smart, lovelorn, alcoholic Mary, who sees everything clearly but can’t find a way to hold the trio together. The role is criminally underwritten—we never learn much of anything about Mary’s work or her personal life—but Mendez fills it with warmth and flashes of complex emotion, not to mention a gorgeous singing voice. Daniel Radcliffe gives his best performance yet as Charley. This actor, who became world famous and fabulously wealthy at an early age, thanks to his starring role in the Harry Potter films, has put in the work to expand his craft. He has not coasted, nor has he made easy choices. His dedication and progress have been lovely to watch and have paid off in a richly nuanced performance that captures Charley’s mix of idealism and rigidity, his passionate regard for truth and his inability to forgive. And there’s a tasty congruence in the fact that the intense Frank/Mary/Charley friendship finds a parallel in the equally intense Harry/Hermione/Ron friendship that centers the Harry Potter stories—although in this instance Radcliffe is playing the sidekick role.
At a certain level, any attempt to “fix” Merrily will have to face the fact that the backward structure presents insurmountable odds. Yes, it makes the final scenes of youthful naivete incredibly moving, but it’s a long slog to get there. It’s a show that works best if you’ve seen it before and know what’s coming. And, as so often with Sondheim, so much sheer content is planted in clever ways throughout that multiple views only enhance the experience. Little reprises, callbacks, and references fill the cracks of the show with meaning. I’ve seen Merrily almost 20 times and, for the first time on this last viewing, I clocked that when the young trio decides to self-produce a nightclub revue, Mary suggests that the title be “Frankly Frank”—not “Clearly Charley” or even “Frankly Frank and Clearly Charley.” Already, one member of the group is being elevated above the others. It is in the accumulation of these small details that the art of Sondheim lies. We are lucky to be living in an age wherein his work is finally getting the popular and commercial attention it has long deserved. More revivals, re-thinkings and reclamations will come, cementing his place as the preeminent musical theater artist of the last half century.