Don’t let the title fool you. Merrily We Roll Along is not a carefree romp through life, even though the music is often fun and upbeat. It’s a storyline told in reverse. Three young people, just out of college, meet and become the best of friends. They haven’t any money, but they do have dreams. Twenty years later, when the story opens, their friendship is in tatters and only one of them is a big success, although not in the way he wanted. What happened? How did he get to this place?
It’s Hollywood in 1976, and Franklin Shepard is on top of the world. His latest movie is a big hit, and he’s throwing a party to celebrate. One of the guests is not in a celebratory mood, although she is drunk. Mary Flynn, a novelist-turned-theatre critic, thinks Frank’s movie is worse than terrible. What’s happened to Frank, the talented composer who wanted to continue composing Broadway musicals with their other great friend Charley Kringas? Charley, a talented lyricist and playwright, is still plugging away back in New York. He’s got his original wife and four kids. Franklin has a young son with his ex-wife, a soon-to-be second ex-wife, and a young girlfriend waiting to become #3.
As Frank reflects back on his life, the musical takes us through its key moments–all the way back to 1957 and an apartment building in New York City. Told in reverse, it’s the equivalent of a murder mystery where the story opens with a dead body. Who killed him and why? How did he die? In Frank’s case, he’s not dead–he’s a movie producer on top of the world. But not really. As for Mary and Charley, they’ve got their own problems. Mary wrote one successful novel, then stopped. She became a theatre critic and an alcoholic. Unrequited love for Frank had something to do with it. Charley is talented, but not quite as talented without Frank’s collaboration, and he struggles to support his large family.
Merrily We Roll Along is one of the hottest tickets on Broadway. I got to see it by chance, after a last-minute opportunity to visit New York City just before Christmas. Given the high cost of a ticket, I expected to be blown away. I was not. The cast was great and the musical was very good, but it wasn’t Hamilton or the kind of musical that had me singing the lyrics for days afterwards. And yet. And yet. . .
I can’t stop thinking about the show! In terms of my own life. In terms of all the problems in the world. Hindsight is 20/20. If we knew then what we know now. The cliches are true, but they suggest we all make the mistakes we make because we can’t see into the future. That doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from hindsight. We can take stock of our lives at any point and change. As individuals, as citizens, as leaders. Frank doesn’t have to keep making lousy movies. He’s a gifted composer who loves creating music. Some of it may not connect with audiences, but that doesn’t mean he should stop. His next song might be a hit. His next song might be his personal favorite, even if most people think otherwise.
Merrily We Roll Along is a remake of a Stephen Sondheim musical that first appeared on Broadway in 1981. The previews were a disaster. Even with countless changes, the show ran for only 16 performances. Most critics panned it. Audiences found the storyline confusing. Sondheim, who was at the height of his career, briefly considered packing it in. He did not and went on to score two more big hits. In 2012, a Merrily with changes opened in London to much acclaim. That same London director brought the show to Off-Broadway and then onto Broadway last year. You see where this is going. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. It’s not over ’til it’s over. Both cliches, both true.
We live in a globally connected world where we’re bombarded daily by news of natural and man-made disasters. It would be easy to give up hope or to become numb to it all. Especially because many of us feel like life is moving so fast that there’s not enough time for everything. But because life is truly short, it’s important to stop every so often and look back. Is this where I want to be? Is this what I want my legacy to be? What kind of world do I want to leave to future generations?
This year we’ve got a President to elect. We’ve got a democracy and a climate to protect. We’ve got friends and neighbors who may need our help. It takes time to pause and reflect. Time that’s essential to our well-being. Otherwise, we merrily or not-so-merrily roll along, oblivious to what’s ahead.