A quick review, while I think of it. Last night, we went to see Merrily We Roll Along at the Huntington. You should go see it.
This is one of Sondheim's less-known shows, adapted from a 1930s play by Kaufman and Hart. It tracks the lives and careers of a trio of friends -- in reverse. The show opens on Frank, a successful and decidedly annoying hotshot producer in the mid-70s. He is rich, famous, outwardly chipper, and hollow as a Kinder chocolate egg, having lost pretty much everything he really cared about along the road to success, including his original passion for composing music. (There is a lot of clear "there but for the grace of God" from Sondheim in Frank's story.)
From there, the story rolls backwards, year by year, asking "how did we get here?", exploring the fall and rise of Frank and his two best friends, Charley and Mary. It ends with them as idealistic 20-year-olds, sitting on a rooftop in 1957 as Sputnik passes overhead, feeling their whole lives ahead of them.
In lesser hands, the concept would have been precious, but Sondheim is a master of form and structure. (During intermission, I mused to Kate that it would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall for a conversation between him and Alan Moore.) Since the story starts at the end, there is little "what will the end be?", or even "what will happen next?" -- each scene largely post-shadows the one before. This is replaced by a host of nuances that are simply there early in the show, which gradually make more and more sense as you learn more of the history. This is a life story as hologram, only really comprehensible when you see all of it.
The music is quite good: not one of Sondheim's best, but certainly not one of his worst, either, and it has catchier bits than many. (Ironically, given that the show overtly mocks critics who demand hummable music.) The direction is excellent, and the cast brilliant -- in particular, Frank shines in a challenging role, starting as the shallow 40-year-old cad and gradually de-aging into a dorky but loveable idealist. I gather that the original run, in the early 80s, failed quickly -- in fair part because they cast it with very young actors to make the de-aging look good, and they simply didn't have the required depth yet. This time, the stars are seasoned vets, and while, yes, Frank does look a bit craggy for a 20-year-old, having experienced actors in all the major roles pays off.
And for all that you can't avoid a bit of melancholy from the story, there's nothing fatalistic about it: even Frank admits that his situation is entirely the result of his own decisions, good and bad. This is an exploration of the way that our choices -- and the way we allow ourselves to be pushed around by others -- shape our lives, and the consequences of getting what we chose.
It's fine stuff, and the theater was criminally empty even for a Tuesday (the mezz was maybe a quarter-full), so I suspect there are still tickets to be had. It's running for a couple more weeks, and is well worth seeing: check it out...