Book by George Furth
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
adapted from the play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

INFO:

Opened at the Alvin Theatre   November 16, 1981    16 performances (revived often)
Original Director: Harold Prince
Original Choreographer: Larry Fuller
Original Producer: Harold Prince
Original Leads: Franklin Shepherd: Jim Walton    Charley: Lonny Price    Mary: Ann Morrison   Joe: Jason Alexander
Cast Size: Male: 3    Female: 3    Ensemble: 8 +    Total Cast Size: 14 or more, the ensemble can grow. I’ve also seen the show done with a cast of about 14, in a Little Theater, and I didn’t feel the smaller cast hurt the show – rather it focused the action on the central story. Whereas a huge cast can disperse the audience’s attention and the spine of this show can be lost.
Orchestra: 13
Published Script: None
Production Rights: MTI (Music Theater International)
Recordings: Numerous, and different layout of songs (including different songs) for different productions. A show that has been rewritten often. The original Broadway is okay, performed by teens. The ’94 Off-Broadway revival is better in some respects, performed by adults. But the orchestrations by the Master, Jonathan Tunick, are better represented in the original Broadway.
Film: A Brit revival was filmed and played in theaters in 2013.
Other shows by the authors:  Both: Company  Sondheim: West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, FolliesA Little Night MusicSweeney Todd, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday In The Park With George , Passion, Assassins
Awards: No Tonys. In 2001, a revival on the West End won three Oliviers, including Best Musical.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

The show is essentially an intimate portrait of five characters, and those five actors (playing Franklin, Mary, Charley, Beth and Gussie) must be very strong. They generally play a broad age range (depending on the version, from teens to elderly), do a lot of singing, and a lot of acting. The actors available to you must be very skilled. This show, on the small side for musicals, can work for colleges, universities, dinner theaters, more experienced and skilled Little Theater groups, would fit well into a Stock or busy Regional schedule as it requires only a unit set and limited resources, and Off-Broadway.

Be Warned:

Without a strong Director at the helm, this show could easily, rapidly spin into confusion for the actors and the audience. Decisions must be made early as to how to handle the backwards aging of the characters, and the methods settled on need to be integrated carefully into your rehearsals. This isn’t the sort of thing you ought to figure out “as you go.” I don’t think this is a good “impulse” piece, one that can be directed and pieced together without a great deal of advanced planning. Your lead staff – Director, Musical Director, must be very capable, and experienced, as should your five leads. Without that sort of strength in personnel, this isn’t going to be a swell show to do.

Also, an ‘average” audience isn’t going to love the unusual music, and unusual structure of this piece. It really requires a reasonably theatrically sophisticated audience. If that does not describe your audience, this show won’t be a good choice for you.

THE STORY: (Outline from Wikipedia, I think this is for the ’94 Off-Broadway revival.)

ACT ONE: Franklin Shepard is a rich, famous, and influential songwriter and film producer (“Merrily We Roll Along”). As the years roll back over twenty years of his life, we see how he went from penniless composer to wealthy producer, and what he gave up to get there.

In Frank’s swank Los Angeles pad in 1976, after the premiere of his latest film, a party is in full swing. Frank’s Hollywood peers are there, and bestow lavish praise on him (“That Frank”). His long-term friend, theatre critic Mary Flynn is also at the party. She is disgusted by the shallow people Frank has chosen to associate with and by his abandonment of music – the one thing he was truly good at – for the world of commercial film producing. Frank seems happy, but tenses up when a guest mentions a Pulitzer-winning play by Charles Kringas, Frank’s former best friend and lyricist. Frank admits to Mary that his new film is just a formula picture, but he promises: just wait for the next film! But Mary has given up waiting, and becomes progressively more inebriated. She gives a drunken toast, castigating Frank and insulting everyone, and storms out of the party (and Frank’s life) in a drunken rage.

Frank’s wife Gussie, a broadway star and Frank argue. He has been stung by Mary’s rant, and confesses that he has concentrated so completely on being a “success” that everything and everyone he most valued at the beginning of his career has gone. The evening ends traumatically when Gussie confronts Frank with knowledge of his infidelity with Meg, a young actress. He ends their marriage, and she viciously attacks Meg.

Back to 1973 (“Merrily We Roll Along – First Transition”). Frank and Charley Kringas are about to be interviewed in a New York TV studio. Mary greets Charley backstage (“Old Friends”), and Charley tells her that Frank never has time to write shows anymore with him. Mary, whose drinking is steadily worsening, confesses that she has set up the interview to force Frank to publicly commit to writing the show he and Charley have been trying to write for years, but Charley is frustrated and bitter. Mary wonders plaintively why can’t their collective friendship be “Like it Was”. When Frank finally arrives, his new wife Gussie in tow, tensions are clearly running high. Gussie is trying to avoid her ex-husband, Broadway Producer Joe Josephson, who is hitting her up for money, and Frank is fretting over how to tell Charley that he has signed a three-picture deal. Unfortunately, just before the interview begins, the host lets the news slip, infuriating Charley. As they go live on air, an increasingly angry and nervous Charley launches into a furious rant on the way his composer has transformed himself into “Franklin Shepard Inc.”, pleading with Frank to return to doing what he does best. After the cameras are shut off, Charley is remorseful, but the damage is done. Frank disowns Charley and walks out – their friendship is over.

It’s 1968, and Mary, Charley and Frank are in Frank’s new apartment on Central Park West (“Merrily We Roll Along – Second Transition”), welcoming Frank back from a cruise. Charley has brought along Frank’s young son, Frankie, whom he has not seen since his divorce. Frank has brought a gift for each of his friends: a copy of Mary’s best-selling novel in Spanish, and a contract for a film option on his and Charley’s show, Musical Husbands. Charley refuses, and an argument is sparked. Frank wants to option the film version for the money, which he needs after a contentious divorce, but Charley says that it will get in the way of writing anything new. Mary reminds them that they are all still old friends (“Old Friends” (Reprise)). But despite the way the trio make up, it is clear that nothing is that simple anymore. Frank’s producer Joe and his wife Gussie arrive. Gussie has brought champagne, which the teetotaler Mary refuses. It becomes clear that Frank and Gussie are having an affair, and Charley, Mary and Joe are all aware of it. Mary, who has been in love with Frank for years, is devastated by his irresponsibility and takes a generous gulp of champagne to prove a point. When everyone leaves, Charley lingers and advises Frank to end the affair, and encourages to join him and Mary for a get together at the club where they got their start. After he leaves, Frank plays through an old song and attempts to make sense of his choices, but is interrupted when Gussie returns, announcing that she intends to live with him and divorce Joe. (“Growing Up”).

On to 1966 (“Merrily We Roll Along – Third Transition”). Frank is being divorced by his wife Beth, and they fight over the custody of their young son in a courthouse. Reporters flock around the scene, anxious to catch gossip since Gussie has been subpoenaed. Frank confronts Beth, who confesses that she still loves him, but that she can’t live with him knowing he was unfaithful to her with Gussie (“Not a Day Goes By”). She drags their son away, heading to Houston to live with her father. Frank collapses in despair but is consoled by Mary, Charley and his other remaining friends. His pals convince him to take a cruise, forget and start anew, stating that this was the “best thing that ever could have happened” (“Now You Know”).

ACT TWO: In 1964, Gussie appears to be singing about Frank’s infatuation with her, but as the scene transforms, and we see that Gussie is performing the song on-stage, as the star of Musical Husbands, on the opening night of Frank and Charley’s first Broadway show. The curtain comes down on the show and as the audience applauds, Charley and Frank, who are backstage with Joe, Mary and Beth, realize they have a hit on their hands (“It’s a Hit!”). Charley’s wife Evelyn is in labor and he and Beth rush to the hospital. Mary asks Beth to stay behind and make sure Frank is not left alone with Gussie, but Beth chooses to trust her husband and leaves Frank on his own, listening to the sound of the audience applauding.

In 1962 (“Merrily We Roll Along – Fourth Transition”): at a party in Gussie and Joe’s elegant Sutton Place apartment. Gussie has thrown a soirée so that Frank, who she wishes to promote, can meet the most influential people in town (“The Blob”). Deliberately spilling wine on Beth’s dress, Gussie pulls Frank away from the party-goers, confiding her unhappiness to him, and Gussie convinces him to write the commercial show Joe is producing, “Musical Husbands”, rather than the political satire he and Charley are trying to get produced. (“Growing Up” (Part II)). Returning to her guests, Gussie invites the songwriters to perform their latest song, “Good Thing Going”. The guests love it. Gussie implores them to do an encore. Charley urges Frank not to, but Frank agrees. They play the song again, but the guests quickly lose interest and resume their noisy cocktail chatter (“The Blob” (Reprise)). Charley storms out, as Beth and Mary look on worriedly.

Time turns back to 1960 (“Merrily We Roll Along – Fifth Transition”). Charley, Frank and Beth are young and beginning their careers, playing a small nightclub in Greenwich Village, with a supportive Mary lending a hand. Trying to appear bright and sophisticated, they perform a song celebrating America’s new First Family (“Bobby and Jackie and Jack”). Joe is in the tiny audience and he’s quite impressed, as is his new fiancée (and former secretary) Gussie, who is strongly attracted to Frank at this first meeting. After the show, Frank explains to them that he and Beth are marrying. It becomes clear that the wedding is due to her pregnancy, but Frank professes his happiness anyway. With Mary, Charley and Beth’s disapproving parents looking on, the happy couple exchanges vows (“Not a Day Goes By” (Reprise)). At an adjoining table, Mary is distraught; she’ll always feel something for Frank.

In 1959 (“Merrily We Roll Along – Sixth Transition”) Frank, Charley and Mary are busy in New York, working their way up the career ladder (“Opening Doors”), taking any job they can and working feverishly at their songs, plays and novels. The men audition for Joe, but he wants more “hummable” tunes, and instructs them to leave their name with his secretary. So they decide to do their own show and in an ensuing musical montage, end up auditioning and hiring Beth and forming their small cabaret show together.

Finally, it is October 1957 (“Merrily We Roll Along – Seventh Transition”). Early in the morning, Frank and Charley are on the roof of an old apartment house on New York City’s 110th Street, waiting for the first-ever earth-orbiting satellite. Frank, who is about to be released from the Army, tells Charley how much he likes Charley’s plays, and proposes that they turn one, a political satire, into a musical. Mary, their neighbor, arrives to view the satellite, and meets the boys for the first time. She has heard Frank’s piano from her apartment, and she tells him how much she admires his music. He speaks eloquently on how much composing means to him. Suddenly, Sputnik is there in the sky, and now, for the young friends, anything is possible (“Our Time”).

THE SONGS:

(The original production) “Merrily We Roll Along”, “Rich and Happy”, “Like It Was”, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”, “Old Friends”, “Not a Day Goes By”, “Now You Know”,”It’s a Hit!”, “Good Thing Going”, “Bobby and Jackie and Jack”,”Opening Doors”, “Our Time”, “The Hills of Tomorrow”

(The ’94 revival) “Merrily We Roll Along”, “That Frank”, “Old Friends” (Part I), “Like It Was”, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”,”Old Friends” (Part II),”Growing Up”, “Not a Day Goes By”, “Now You Know”,”Act Two Opening”,”It’s a Hit”,”The Blob”,”Growing Up” (Part II),”Good Thing Going”,”The Blob” (Part II),”Bobby and Jackie and Jack”, “Opening Doors”,”Our Time”

Hits include “Not A Day Goes By”, “Good Thing Going”

MY OPINIONS:

As ever, feel free to skip my observations and rating, and if everything merrily rolls along to the theatrical equivalent of bankruptcy and Hell, remember you have only yourself to blame.

Merrily is a fascinating show, with an increasingly fascinating history. But before we get into this, I want to say that the score has some genuine beauty and power and is well worth a listen – several listens, as there are several versions. The score is an accomplishment, the sort of thing only Stephen Sondheim could write. And a lot of it works, though it’s not as entertaining as it should probably be. The show has the potential, I believe, to truly move an audience, with it’s unusual backwards-in-time structure. The audience knows how things end up. Watching the characters go backwards from success and insensitivity, gaining enthusiasm and spark as they grow younger and filled with hope for a future we have already seen will not be everything they hope, is a lovely and potentially powerful idea.

A quick note, in the first version, the opening number is repeated many, many times, each time we jump in time. In the revival, a “transition” is played many many times, and it is essentially the same piece. I didn’t list these repries in the score, there are too many. But in Merrily, Mr. Sondheim shows an interesting willingness to use the reprise (or would it be “pre-prise”, since each statement would be earlier in the character’s life though later in the play). This gives us a chance to really get to know some of the songs in this show, and is in line with the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition of writing. It did not help the show become a standard, or even a success, but I personally like how he used reprise in Merrily, and appreciate the opportunity to get to know some of the songs better.

This show was originally performed on Broadway by teenagers, so as the show progresses, they remove make-up and age back to their actual ages by the end of the play. (And it took them back to their High School graduation, something later drafts thankfully stopped doing, ending them in their early 20s.) It was an interesting and brave experiment for a Broadway show with a significant budget, but it failed rather badly. I think the material is too difficult for a young cast. It is Sondheim, after all.

Later productions have generally cast more mature actors, who start out well, but of course, may not be very believable as youngsters. I think your best bet is to cast mid-late 20s, to play teens-40s, and to do so across the board for all the young-ish characters. I would not mix-and-match age ranges in your leads! That is sure to look silly. And I’d use the ’94 version that takes them back into their early 20s, far easier to pull off for the actors, and more emotionally satisfying.

Merrily was first a play by two masters of Broadway comedy, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

I am a HUGE fan of their best works, You Can’t Take It With You, The Man Who Came To Dinner, and Once In A Lifetime, each an American masterwork and together, a national treasure. Merrily does not go in the treasure chest, I’m sorry to say. It is an interesting play with an interesting theatrical conceit at its core, but it does not work well. In adapting it, Mr. Furth wisely cut down the number of characters and some of the complexities from the original. Intimacy, and a chance to spend a lot of time with the five main characters in the Musical version, is one of its strengths. (Unfortunately, it can also mean a lot of standing and sitting and talking, and singing – without much momentum or motion. A good Director will find ways to keep the show moving in every way.)

But in listening to the various cast albums, it’s often hard to tell what’s happening in the story, a problem I do not have with most Sondheim shows. I don’t believe that the Musical is entirely immune from the problems that plagued the original play. That means success producing Merrily will require a strong directorial hand to keep this time-traveling tune-fest humming. Clarity in delivering the story and concept should be at a premium. The audience MUST get it! And get it right away, just about! I can’t emphasize this too much. Putting this show together, you simply cannot err too much on the side of simplicity and clarity of execution.

This show seems to have terminated the very productive partnership of Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince. That implies that this is a tough show to get right. After all, the two survived and flourished together through shows as difficult as Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd! But not this show. Something went wrong in the original production, very wrong, as can be attested to by a 16 performance run. I suggest, if you take this show on, that you do a serious study of it first. Read the Kaufman & Hart play. Pour through the script and score of the Musical several times. Conceptualize your production carefully, everything from the overall ages of your cast, to how music will be executed, to the various design elements (which are pretty wide open as to how to do them). Work as a team and get the best ideas you possibly can organized and together before rehearsals start…and then don’t be surprised if you find yourself holding on to ideas that don’t play. Have back-up creative plans that you believe in, and remain flexible during the early part of the rehearsal process.

This is not an easy show to get right. The drama is ham-fisted at times, overly obvious and even melodramatic. The score can become strident with too much repetition, and the ballads can sound too much alike, and sometimes seem thrown in as afterthoughts, not well-connected to the plot. The writers have worked the show over several times, and made significant changes to it, including eliminating material that plays the characters younger than about age 21 or so in later versions, a wise decision I believe (I will say it again), since kids playing this show really doesn’t work well. Ideal casting for this show is 20s-early 30s, and even then, when these actors play “older”, it’s going to look contrived and pushed to some extent. There’s no getting around this problem, but since they are old at the beginning of the show, this can really damage the first 15-20 minutes or so, and it’s a rare show that can recover from a poor opening. So you’ll want to expend a fair amount of rehearsal time making the portrayal of older Frank and crew compelling, an emotional experience.

But I absolutely love “Franklin Shepherd, Inc.”, GREAT number! It makes the first very long ½ hour or so almost worth having sat through. And after that point, I do believe the show starts to work. You should work your production to imbue the first part of Act I with purpose and life. But it certainly deserves the effort, it has great, if as-yet unrealized promise.

MY RATING: * (A better-than-average and interesting show, right for many groups.)

 

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:

It’s Sondheim, and that means it’s complex, rich with unusual turns and intervals, and the unexpected. This is one of Sondheim’s most “commercial” scores in that it tends to repeat pieces, helping them settle in the audience’s ear. He built the score in a “modular” fashion, using a piece of a song in one place, another piece of a song in another place, then perhaps repeating the first piece in yet another place in the story, all to illustrate the developing characters and situations, and the fact that time is moving backwards. It is a fascinating experiment in form, and though I think it could be argued that not everything works, a lot of it does work, and I doubt there are many other theater artists who could get anywhere near as close to workable with this as Mr. Sondheim did. Anyway, as a Musical Director, you’ll need to mine this score, investigate it, find the repetitions and make certain the Director and Choreographer are fully aware of these important restatements of motifs. They are valuable signposts in the journey for the characters and audience.

Need I say that your Musical Director must be experienced? That his skills as a musician really need to be top drawer for this score? That his patience and expertise teaching a complex score top a cast that may even consist of teens must be extraordinary? This is a no-man’s-land for a novice! Your M.D. Will do a lot to make or break any chance you have of getting this right.

Your singers must be fairly trained, expertly clear with lyrics, universally gifted with healthy belt voices, and clear, ringing high notes. Harmonizing well would be a plus. A sight-reading cast would be a gift from the theater Gods.

Franklin – Tenor, full clear voice, decent belt, warm expression in the voice.

Charley – Tenor, character-driven, comic belt, good high notes.

Mary – Mezzo, full belt, decent high notes.

Gussie – Mezzo.

Beth – Mezzo.

Joe – Baritone.

Ensemble – As described above, good mid-ranges, good belts, clear delivery of lyrics. Strong harmonizing skills.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

Like almost all Sondheim shows,. This is not a dance show. Looking over the score, there is probably less dance in this show than in almost any musical. Organized movement, yes, and not much of that. Dance, nope. You can get some energy into group upbeats like “That Frank” and “The Blob”, and the opening number. And you had best do so. But the movement put on this show must always serve a painfully clear telling of the story and development of the characters, period. No “movement-for-movement’s sake”, or “the show is slow here, let’s get everyone moving.” That isn’t going to fly with this show.

Your Choreographer may be involved in staging “Merrily We Roll Along”, “That Frank”, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”,”Act Two Opening”,”It’s a Hit”,”The Blob”,”The Blob” (Part II), and “Bobby and Jackie and Jack”, an actual revue-type musical number performed for an “audience”, which will require a bit of razzle-dazzle soft-shoe movement. But what I said in that paragraph above is the key to the choreographer’s job with this show. Requires a choreographer who thinks like a Director, or a Director who moves a bit like a Choreographer, in which case you may not need a Choreographer.

Always be aware of how old the characters are now, at any given point of the show, and make sure their movement helps amplify and clarify where we are in time. As the show does move through time, you may be able to use different dance styles from the period the show moves through. Coordinate this idea with your Director, but I wouldn’t get too excited about it. You’ll be staging, regardless, for clarity in the development of the story and characters.

By the way, I watched a pirated tape of the original Broadway production. (It’s on You tube, the whole world can watch it.) The production was very static, very little movement in the opening number, almost like, well, a mediocre High School concert. In fact, while watching it, I forgot that it wasn’t a High School production, except for the fact that the vocals were stronger than most High Schools could produce, and the orchestra much better. But it looked and felt like a High School show. The Choreographer was frankly lost. On Broadway. I think this show requires the utmost professionalism to work, and that Mr. Prince and his team very uncharacteristically did not live up to the needs of the show. That’s one reason it was not a hit. The show does need some staged, organized and useful movement, it needs life. But the movement should be focused as I described. Also, the acting, performed by teens, is amateurish and overdone, I’m afraid. That did not help the show, either.

I then watched a Little Theater production with adults, and the Choreography was often just as mishandled toward the start. The opening number was thrown face front at the audience, when the subject of the “94 version of the opening is Franklin. He stood and sort of watched, but that isn’t the point or the correct focus. It should have all been directed toward his character, so that the audience would have understood why the song, and where their attention was supposed to be. And the more it’s all played front, presentationally, the more like a concert it all feels. Much of this production in the early going went on to be talking heads, it didn’t move quickly enough from scene to scene, line to line, and felt endless in parts of Act I. Except “Franklin Shepherd, Inc”. BUT, forced by their tiny environs and limited cast size to focus on the main characters, the performances improved and the show became interesting starting with “Franklin Shepherd, Inc.” Now, if they could have just been smarter about the staging of the first 20 minutes…

There is another structural problem with the show. We lose a principle character, Mary, for much of Act II, and in doing so, we lose interest in her when she shows up again. The Director and actor will need to do some work reminding us why we should care about her. But she does grow increasingly sympathetic as she grows younger, which helps. Also, she comes off as more than a little bit of a victim, in love with Frank and keeping it to herself, which can make her unlikeable. We should see some strength of character, allowing Frank to go his own way toward what he perceives as happiness, rather than self-pity.

In putting this show together, it’s important, critical to give it a sense of momentum, unstoppable, irresistible. A lot of this could be choreographic. A lot of it will need to come from the Director and the Actors. Also, a lot of the numbers are “performances on stage” by performers and song writers, characters in show-biz. They sometimes don’t quite comment sufficiently on the “off-stage” action to fully explain why they’re there.

This is an easy show to get wrong.

CASTING CONCERNS:

Franklin – Mid-late 20s, to play 21-mid 50s or so. (This is an important directorial decision that needs to be made right at the start of developing a production of Merrily.) Ambitious, talented to the point of being gifted, perhaps handsome, alive to who he is and what he can do, he develops into a somewhat guarded success, a stereotype lacking humor, and is instrumental in cutting away those he loves most and who love him, a fact that he is somewhat aware of. Cast for acting, type, voice, musicianship, movement. Really must do all well.

Charley – Mid-late 20s, to play 21- 40s or so. Very bright, creative, aggressive, moral. Always sure he’s right, but then he is much of the time. His emotions, his passions can and do get the better of his common sense at times. Expressive with words and thoughts, a decent performer when doing numbers he’s co-authored with Frank, and fun to watch. An actor capable of good comic bits, and deeper dramatic moments. Cast for acting, type, voice, movement, and all should be strong.

Mary – Mid-late 20s, to play up to mid 40s-early 50s or so. A hopeful, positive young writer who degenerates into an alcoholic, loud, destructive misery. The relationship she has with Frank is not simple, and should not be played at any point as if it is. There is love, and hope, and disappointment, all playing out at once. We must see the genius that allows her to author a successful novel, so when she throws it all away, there is loss. Requires a really fine actress, strong voice, then the type.

Gussie – Mid-late 20s-early 30s to play mid 20s-40s. Sexy, charismatic, a “star”, as well as a born user and abuser. Without much of a conscience or interest in others, she’ll do almost anything to get who or what she wants. A woman who believes her own press. Cast for type, acting, voice. Must be strong.

Beth – The woman destined to marry and divorce Franklin. Trusting, blind to real life to some extent, a born “victim” in some ways. A young woman with theatrical ambitions of her own, sacrificed to Franklin’s career and life, who justifiably divorces him and with brutal efficiency. A fair performer, not untalented, in the “on-stage” material she does. Perhaps a bit mousy, but simple and lovely. Cast for acting, type, voice, some movement.

Joe – Mid 30s-40s, to play 40s – 30s. The “producer” type…almost a stereotype. A married, older man (to Gussie) who just about drowns in common sense. Every decision he makes is driven by practical concerns, including allowing Gussie to have an affair with Franklin. Like Beth, he trusts too much, and they both underestimate Gussie. Cast for acting, type, voice.

Ensemble – Party guests, industry people. Many small roles, each actor in a small ensemble will be kept busy. All must do some acting, sing very well, do some movement. Ideal ages would probably be 20s-30s – they do not “age” backwards as they are not shown consistently as particular characters.

SETS:

This show really should be presented on a unit set. But what should that unit set be? The original Broadway performed on a sort of jungle gym. That didn’t work well at all. Life really can’t be symbolized well as a jungle gym, and these are particular lives, the lives of artists.

One production essentially used a bare stage with an upright piano and some chairs that were moved around. That’s not bad. The bare stage itself connotes art, as does the piano, Franklin’s weapon of choice. And it has the advantage of being a really inexpensive and fluid set. Parties and changes in location (backstage at a theatre, performing in a dump Little Theatre, Franklin’s massive affluent NYC apartment…) were all executed by moving chairs around. The actors (as in Shakespeare) did the rest. I liked the simplicity of it, but thought it quickly became visually boring. The lighting wasn’t quite interesting enough to compensate, and the stage was quite small…and painted white, always a bad idea.

But a piano center stage with perhaps musical symbols and notes flowing on the floor and walls away from it might be a powerful symbol of a man who lives at first for music, then by music, and then is famous but lost because he’s lost his reason to make music. This would clearly make Franklin the core of the show, and so he is. Then, perhaps a few interesting changes could be made?

When a party starts in Act I in the apartment, drop a chandelier, and light it so the glass reflects variously through the theater, a “wealthy” location, glittery enough for the famous to frequent.

Perhaps a red drape could be dropped (or if needed, rolled in) half way downstage for the backstage sequence at the top of Act II, “It’s A Hit,” to provide the new act a new look. Then the drape could be removed to reveal the set again.

The poor Little Theater where Franklin, Beth and Charley perform “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” could be played on a small stage, revealed when the piano is pushed to one side, with a cheap black drape dropped at the back of the small platform. Drapes would have already been established as a visual motif for “theaters”, so long as you don’t use them for other purposes.

At the end of the ’94 version, the three principles are on the roof of an inexpensive apartment building, watching the sky for sputnik, a Russian satellite launched in the late 1950s. Lose the piano for this final scene. Isolate your lighting to the actors. Perhaps roll on a few pipes, even an old TV antenna, objects which may have been normally on the roof of such a building, and which help date it. It won’t take much, and you don’t really need to even do that. If through lighting or some simple, inexpensive effect, you can imply a sky filled with stars and promise, I’d do it.

This could be one of the easiest (and most effective) shows to design sets for, using this approach. What you should not do, definitely not, is go literal with the sets, and create the various locations. The show will lose its fluidity. This is not a good show to watch actors change and move sets around as part of the action, a device I think does work well in some shows and hurts others. Set changes as such, if there are any at all, should be seamless and mechanical, invisible as to how it’s done.

COSTUMES:

We are traveling back in time from the 80s to the 50s. Clothing styles change and must be demonstrated. This will be hardest to do with poor Franklin, who rarely is out of view. For him,. You’ll be adding or taking off an article at a time, probably, in a very rapid backstage change in the dark. Usually, for other characters, there’s more time to change them, and change them you must. The sets won’t help us to know when we are. Costumes must do some of the heavy lifting.

There are a billion photos and films available to get an idea of how New Yorkers dressed in each period, and some study will probably be needed. Your leads must also do a lot of singing. Fortunately, there’s almost no real dance of any kind in the show, so that isn’t a concern of the Costumer’s.

Though the cast really should not be large (though it can get as large as the Director and Producer need, up to 30 or more…), the changes in period will make this a bit of work. Get a head start. Work closely with the Director.

Gussie should be a four-alarm fire, I think, beautiful and sexy. Dress her so she can move accordingly.

Keep shoes neutral, timeless.

This is not a job for a newbie.

PROPS:

Sheet music, a typewriter (for the early 60s), a TV camera (or something implied to be one) for the TV interview (optional), phones from the 60s-80s, chairs, bottles and glasses for the parties, a hand-held tape-recorder for “It’s A Hit”, not a huge job, overall.

LIGHTING:

I think the lighting on any unit set show must be very good, creative and fluid. It must set moods. It must direct attention, and sometimes, suggest locations. Indoor parties should feel lamp-lit and indoors, opulent when opulent. The lighting for Franklin’s younger, inexpensive lodgings should be flatter, and whiter, probably an overall lighting motif to carry forward from the start of the show, until the lighting is simple, white, even harsh at the end…until it becomes the white of a magical moon, as a man-made satellite passes overhead implying that anything and everything is possible.

You should use a cheap follow spot for “Bobby and Jackie and Jack”.

This is not a job for a beginner. The lighting will need to accomplish a lot, be rich and expressive. There will likely be many cues.

MAKE-UP:

Overall, since you can’t change much, don’t do much. Franklin should be graying at the start, and show his years, though he’s still charismatic and attractive. You’ll need to lose those lines and the gray by degree throughout Act I, and the changes will need to be designed right into the show.

Mary also is older, and overweight (a fat suit) at first, and then ages backwards. Same set of problems. Wigs for these characters would be helpful, perhaps. Wigs for Gussie as her look changes will be needed. Even Charlie ages backwards somewhat, as does Joe. Wigs, a few lines easily removed, don’t go crazy. Let the actors carry most of the aging problem.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):

Director, Musical Director, Choreographer, Costume Designer, Lighting Designer, Franklin, Charley, Mary, Gussie, Beth.

MY THOUGHTS:

The book is a bit flat, and relies more than most Musicals on two and three character scenes of length. Merrily is effectively a chamber piece, and I think that should be emphasized as a strength. Keeping your cast and orchestra small, minimizing technical hoo-haw in design, will help.

It is very important in presenting his show to find the heart of each of the three main characters, and then play out their story as if it mattered at least to them. And I would move things along, like the early party sequence (“That Frank”, and after the song). The dialogue doesn’t exactly soar here, it’s trite, perhaps intentionally so as Frank has become a stereotype at this late moment in his life. Great, but there’s little quite so boring to watch as a stereotype. We must see into the character’s heart, somehow, the pain he feels, the loss over ideals and dreams both met, and abandoned. The show very badly needs a human heartbeat, and like Bobby in Company, Franklin Shepherd can be a bit of a cipher. He’s active in life, but his interests seem few and obvious. Your actor and Director will need to dig in and put some feeling into the man