Good Thing Going: The Positive Message of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG

Good Thing Going: The Positive Message of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG

This is the second of a weekly series analyzing Sondheim musicals, in preparation for his 80th birthday on March 22. The first, on wealth and happiness in SATURDAY NIGHT, can be read here.

"Dreams don't die, so keep an eye on your dream," urges the opening lines of the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.  Originally opening in 1981 and undergoing revisions in the intervening years, the show is often perceived as a cynical look at the realities of being an artist.  Its three main characters begin the show as former best friends whose careers are nothing like the ones they once wanted, making it easy to think that - despite those opening lines - their dreams have in fact died.  But while MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG may seem pessimistic, its structure and themes make it an uplifting show.

It Started Out With A Song

MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG's unique structure keeps the show from being heavy and cynical.  While the events in the story unfold in a straightforward, linear fashion, they occur in reverse order.  That is, the show begins at a fancy Hollywood party celebrating producer Franklin Shephard, where the audience learns that Frank is deeply unhappy.  His best friends and his son have kicked him out of their lives, he's stopped writing music, and his current lifestyle disgusts him.  "I swear, if I could somehow be starting over with Charley, writing shows, trying to change the world, I'd give this all up like that," he confesses to Gussie, his wife.

"Do you really not see that I'm ashamed of all this?  That I am as sick of myself as you are?  That I just try to keep acting like it all matters.  To not let people see how much I hate my life, how much I wish the God damn thing was over-"

The cast of the Signature Theatres 2007 production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG

The cast of the Signature Theatre's 2007 production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG

From the lowest point in Frank's career, the story goes backwards, showing key moments in his life where his decisions took him down the wrong path.  "I've made only one mistake in my life," Frank realizes.  "But I made it over and over.  That was saying 'yes' when I meant 'no.'" Because Frank largely ends up the way he does due to seemingly innocent decisions instead of major factors beyond his control, his fate is one that audiences can learn from and avoid.  For example, Frank's choice to work on a film adaptation of his and Charley's hit musical instead of writing a new show doesn't seem like it'll have a huge effect on his career.  But postponing their new show yet again widens the rift between Frank and Charley, and ends up being Frank's gateway into the movie business. Prioritizing something once over the meaningful, non-commercial show Frank and Charley have been wanting to write probably would not have had the same impact.  It's when Frank makes this decision again and again that their dream gets further and further away.  Using this technique, Sondheim and Furth make it clear that Frank's unhappiness stems from a series of poor decisions and a lack of perspective - things that others can look out for in themselves.

Moreover, the final image of the show is that of the three friends - young and idealistic artists all - looking up into the night sky at the satellite Sputnik.  Seeing the historic event as the beginning of an era filled with possibility, Mary, Charley, and Frank believe they can do anything; that they're "the names in tomorrow's papers."  While the audience knows that their lives won't turn out the way they planned, ending the show with an image of hope and promise is significantly more upbeat than ending with Frank's deep unhappiness.  Such an uplifting ending reminds audience members of their own potential and encourages them to pursue their own dreams - but with the shadow of Frank's fate as a warning.

Tend Your Dream

Another structural component of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG that ultimately makes the show positive its prologue and transitions.  The cast - minus Frank - opens the show with the title song, which is reprised in "Transitions" that signify when the show moves further into the past.  The song and its reprises do not pass judgment on Frank or blame him for walking away from his dream of writing musicals that change the world.  Rather, the lyrics reflect Frank's bewilderment at the turn his life has taken:

"How can you get so far off the track?
Why don't you turn around and go back?
How does it happen?
Where is the moment?
How can you miss it?
Isn't it clear?
How can you let it slip out of gear?...
How does it start to go?
Does it slip away slow
So you never even notice it's happening?
How did you get to be here?
What was the moment?"

The song also acknowledges that ending up with a life you never wanted can creep up on you when everything seems to be going right:

"Pick yourself a road.
Get to know the countryside.
Soon enough you're merrily,
Practicing dreams.
Dreams that will explode,
Waking up the countryside,
Making you feel merrily,
What can go wrong
Rolling along?"

Sometimes there's so much going on in your pursuit of your dream, the lyrics point out, that you may be in fact undermining that dream without even realizing it.

Michael Haydens Frank and Raul Esparzas Charley enjoy success on Broadway in the Kennedy Center 2002 Sondheim Celebration

Michael Hayden's Frank and Raul Esparza's Charley enjoy success on Broadway in the Kennedy Center 2002 Sondheim Celebration

The song's upbeat, brassy music also keeps the show from blaming Frank for his misfortune.  The music is very much in a big band, classic Broadway style, with infectious rhythms and a confident melody that generates a warm, happy feeling in the listener.  While that style of music reflects the musical style of many Broadway shows in the period when Frank and Charley were actively writing, it also makes it extremely clear that the show does not judge Frank - and neither should the audience.  The bright optimism of the music also mirrors the excitement Frank feels at the start of his career, where it seemed like he could accomplish anything.  The brashness of the music also symbolizes the blinding effect success can have.  Just as the brass can drown out other sounds, so can success create a kind of tunnel vision, enabling a person to lose sight of anything else - including their initial dream.  Between sympathetic lyrics and feel-good music, the song "Merrily We Roll" along establishes at the top of the show what happened to Frank could happen to anyone, and its reprises after every scene act as reminders for the audience.

Franklin Shephard, Inc

Two main themes in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG also make the show optimistic.  The conflict between Frank and Charley is not simply about money versus art, though it's easy to interpret it as such.  Throughout the show, Charley criticizes Frank for choosing the options that will make more money, rather than spend time on a show about politics that may not go anywhere.  Charley, however, is not against Frank making money.  When a reporter notes, "Oh, that sounds like you think making money is a bad thing for an artist," Charley clarifies:

"No, I like money a lot...
I mean it's better than not...
But when it's-
When you're into-
And you should be...

Listen, Frank does the money thing very well.  But you know what? There are other people who do it better.  And Frank does the music thing very well.  And you know what?  No one does it better."

Frank disappoints Charley not because he's making money, but because he's making money instead of making music; because something got in the way of his dream.  In Frank's case, it happened to be money, but it could have been anything.  This more nuanced look at the reality of being an artist recognizes that artists need to have some kind of income.  Making money and making art can be compatible; it's only a problem when you stop making art and only make money.  This view of being a working artist is a more hopeful one, as it's a lifestyle that's far more sustainable than one devoid of any commercial endeavors at all, and it doesn't hold artists to such lofty ethical standards.

Will Gartshore as Frank in the Signature Theatres 2007 production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG--from

Will Gartshore as Frank in the Signature Theatre's 2007 production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG--from

"Here's To Us."
"Who's Like Us?"
"Damn Few."

Friendship is another key theme in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.  Time after time, Frank's two best friends give him good advice, and time after time, he ignores it.  At a dinner party thrown by a Broadway producer and his actress wife, Frank and Charley beautifully perform a song from the show they've been trying to get off the ground.  The party guests love it so much that Gussie - who ends up leaving her husband and marrying Frank - insists they play it again.  Charley and their friend, novelist Mary, plead otherwise. "You know what true greatness is?  It's knowing when to get off," Charley points out.  Frank convinces him to sing anyway, but this time, the guests begin talking amongst themselves and even get louder than the writers.  Frank also ignores Mary and Charley's advice concerning Gussie, and chooses her over them at one point.  Frank's repeated disregard for their advice implies that he doesn't value their opinions or their friendship the way he used to, causing Mary and Charley to feel increasingly frustrated and taken for granted. When Charley is ready to completely give up on his friendship with Frank, Mary has to convince him to even be interviewed with their friend:

"Charley, I know Frank.  If you connect with him again, if you commit the guy today publicly, I promise you, by tomorrow you two are going to be back together working again.  You gotta help save him, Charley."

While Mary does manage to keep Charley from walking out, he can't pretend that he and Frank will be as close as they once were. "[W]e're not the three of us any more, Mary," he corrects her.  "Now we're one and one and one."  Frank has so set himself apart from the other two that he's fractured their group, leaving him without the support and advice he ends up desperately needing.  MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is in many ways an affirmation of friendship and how important it is for even the most successful and independent person to have a support system.

Raul Esparza, Michael Hayden, and Miriam Shor are the three friends in the 2002 Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration cast

Raul Esparza, Michael Hayden, and Miriam Shor are the three friends in the 2002 Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration cast

MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is far more than a cautionary tale about "selling out."  Through its structure and its emphasis on the importance of staying focused and the value of friends, the show overall is a positive one.  We all have some control over our lives, Sondheim and Furth argue; dreams don't get away overnight.  Frank's transformation may be slow and sneaky, but it's something he could have stopped - and all of us can learn from his mistakes.

For more information and to license MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, check out its MTI show page. Discuss this article or MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG in general on its MTI ShowSpace page.