The other day, I wrote here about the Stephen Sondheim musical, Merrily We Roll Along, a story that runs backwards, following the disintegration of the partnership of three friends who write for the theater and go back through their lives to where they met in college, filled with enthusiasm for the future.
A reader, Ken Kahn, sent a link to an excellent production that was done in 2013 as a limited run at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End. I've embedded the full show below --
Which reminds me of something related to this that I wrote here two years ago, on September 5, 2019. Here’s that article –
Really, Truly Rolling Along
It was just announced that Richard Linklater is going to make a movie of the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, that has a book by George Furth, who had previously collaborated on Company.. The story concerns three people who have been friends for 20 years since college -- a songwriting team of shows and a female theater critic -- whose friendship is disintegrating and looks at their story in reverse, showing us how things fell apart from just idealistic beginnings. This upcoming movie is notable for two reasons: the first is that the original musical was a big flop, running for only 16 performances (though it's had a bit of an afterlife), and the second is that Linklater is going to film it over the course of 20 years!.
Clearly, this is an utterly fascinating way to make Merrily We Roll Along, watching these three people's lives play out "almost" in real time during the 20 years of the show And oddly, it’s not totally surprising that Linklater is doing it this way – because he did a similar thing with the movie Boyhood that was released a couple years ago. He filmed that over a 12-year period.
The musical, by the way, is based on a play by the legendary Kaufman and Hart, who most famously wrote the classic You Can't Take It With You. Though the original play of Merrily We Roll Along (like the subsequent musical) was a flop, as well.
Obviously this is a massive risk -- not just to film it over 20 years, but doing not only a little-known musical, but one that was a flop. (The original London production only ran 71 performances.) But I wish it much success. I actually like the show a lot, and have seen a couple times, as well as the fairly-good 2016 documentary about the original production, The Best Worst Thing That Could Have Ever Happened . But as much as I do like the show, the hardest reality to get around is that most people don’t seem to like it. While making it with the same cast aging along properly could help how people respond, I don’t think that that’s ever been people’s biggest complaint. (Though casting has always been a slight issue.) Mainly, though, people don’t seem to like that the story is ultimately-unhappy and that it's told backwards, which doesn't make it any happier, even ending on youthful optimism as it does, which admittedly is bittersweet, since we know where it leads.
Clearly, they all know what a massive risk this is. And for all the risk went ahead because they're excited by the possibilities and feel it's all very much worth it. And I assume they have big hopes but limited, realistic expectations. But still…
I’ll add one more risk: who knows what the movie industry will be in 20 years? Will there still be theaters? Will it all be streamed? Will they even still be using film? Will it all be digital? Will some other technology have been developed? Will everything be 3-D? Will everything be interactive where you can pick-and-choose angles and scenes? Will everything be high-resolution? Will actors regularly be computer generated? Will technology move so fast (as it does nowadays) that this will look like a black-and-white, herky-jerky silent film of 1919 compared to Gone with the Wind color spectacular in 1939? Will it look like the first 8-inch screen black-and-white fuzzy TV that takes 30-seconds to warm up in the early 1950s compared to living color 30-inch TVs, remote controls, instant-on, and watching big-screen Cinerama in the early 1970s? Will it look like stop-action Godzilla in the early 1970s compared to “Jurassic Park” in 1993? Will it look like the basic movie theater and TV experience in the 2000 compared to a world where watching in the palm of your hand on a 4-inch telephone, streaming services, pausing live action on a DVR and rewinding, 72-inch home Smart TVs connected to the Internet, digital, binge-watching of today are the everyday norm?
But as I said, I do like how they tell the story – and even used a similar technique in part of a very low-budget film I co-wrote. Maybe using the same actors will make a difference to people’s reaction. And maybe they can figure out a way to do the film inexpensively, like Boyhood. But this is a musical, so that’s trickier. Also, 30 years ago, maybe this would be THE definitive way to make the movie work best, filming it over 20 years. But today with prosthetics and computer imaging, I don’t think it’s as necessary. Yes, it will certainly get HUGE attention by doing it this way when it’s finally released, and being done in “real time” will add great emotion to watching it. But today it’s still just not necessary. And doing it this way, while utterly fascinating and in many ways admirable, also has a touch of arrogance and pretentiousness. Because it's not really necessary.
They announced the three leads, and that’s another tricky matter. Not only the question of “Will they still be around in 20 years?” -- which is probable, but still a huge risk -- but will their names matter? One of the three is Ben Platt, who’s a Tony-winner for Dear Evan Hansen and excellent, and a great choice. But the movie of his Tony-winning role flopped. The other two might be excellent -- Blake Jenner and Beanie Feldstein -- but neither are yet stars. He was in Glee,” though not much of nigh note since. She recently starred in Booksmart (which got good reviews but flopped), has had some solid work, and had a role in Lady Bird (oddly, playing the same role in the production of Merrily We Roll Along they do within the film that she’ll play in this movie), and a growing career. But in 20 years…who knows?
Hopefully we’ll be around to see it. And I greatly admire the attempt. And really do like the show. Clearly, there’s a side to this that is really great and adventurous and very cool. And a side that seems arrogant and pretentious. But best wishes to it.
The show also has a very good score that got a Tony nomination. And four standout songs that have had a bit of an afterlife, something incredibly rare for a Sondheim musical. "Our Time" is used by a lot of high school graduating classes. "Good Thing Going" is another. And here are the two others --
This first is a wonderful rendition by Carly Simon of "Not a Day Goes By."
And while this is hardly the definitive version of the reasonably well-known "Old Friends," it may be one of the most fun, and is the way they ended the 1986 Emmy Awards, with a menagerie of legendary, old-time TV stars. (Not to worry, though the video goes for over six minutes, the song ends around four minutes in, following a lead-in by host David Letterman.)
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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