Stephen Sondheim and the Hills of Tomorrow
Remembering the legendary American theater composer and lyricist, who left us on November 26th at age 91
“Feel how it quivers, on the brink.”
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Stephen Sondheim’s “Our Time” is one of those “I want” songs that usually come near the beginning of Broadway musicals. In West Side Story, which has Sondheim lyrics, it’s “Something’s Coming”: “There’s something due any day,” Tony sings. It’s just around the corner, or maybe at the dance at the gym. It sets the audience up, lays out the stakes; we can’t wait to see how this all turns out. But by the time we hear “Our Time” in Merrily We Roll Along, sung by friends on a rooftop, sketching out a limitless future, we already know how the story ends, and how all the idealist promise in the song has been deflated. It’s become a “we wanted” song.
Merrily We Roll Along, famously ill-fated and underappreciated, unspools backwards, from cynical and compromised adulthood to youthful optimism. It was a flop when it premiered on Broadway thirty years ago; audiences were put off, or baffled. But it refused to go away. It’s been revised, tinkered with, reassembled, because despite its tricky structure and unwieldy book, it gets at matters of import: friendship, ambition, compromise, fame, failure. And it has some of Sondheim’s best songs.
I’ve seen Merrily a few times in different settings, most recently in 2012, when the Encores! series at City Center presented it with a cast that included Lin-Manuel Miranda, then himself “on the brink” (as the “Our Time” lyric would have it) of being at the center of everything. It’s not my favorite Sondheim play. That would be Sunday in the Park with George, a rapturous meditation on the art of making art that took my breath away the first time I saw it.
And I’m pretty crazy about Company, from the D.A. Pennebaker documentary about the making of the original cast album, and from a Lincoln Center production starring such luminaries as Neil Patrick Harris, Christina Hendricks, Stephen Colbert, Jon Cryer, and Patti LuPone, who made quite the feast of “The Ladies Who Lunch” (she seemed so angry at these women for some reason). But I keep returning to Merrily We Roll Along. Its inelegance and klutziness don’t detract from my appreciation of it; if anything, the fact that it’s never quite worked, that it’s always about potential and falling short of its own intentions makes me embrace it all the more. It’s like a hat that Sondheim knew fully well was never finished, but would never abandon.
I come from more of a pop music place than a musical comedy one, although there’s a handful of musicals (Guys and Dolls, for one) that make me incredibly happy. His fans might not approve of my saying so, but Merrily We Roll Along feels like Sondheim’s pop musical, with a more-than-usual cluster of stand-alone pop-ish songs. Before I saw it in a theater, I heard cover versions of “Not a Day Goes By” (Carly Simon on Torch) and “Good Thing Going” (Frank Sinatra on She Shot Me Down). In the context of the show, “Good Thing Going” is even supposed to be a Pop Hit, not a character song, but a song written by the two main male characters. They play it at a party, and all the guests are knocked out, and we’re supposed to realize that it is a flowering of their talents: they’re going to take over the world. By Sondheim standards, it’s untheatrical (you could imagine someone like Jimmy Webb writing it, with its “going, going…gone” punchline), because he’s not writing as himself. It’s his idea of what a mainstream pop song might be.
Merrily also has the cheery vaudeville-esque “Old Friends,” plus “Our Time,” and “Opening Doors,” another burst of youthful energy that, by the demands of the chronology, has to come on near the end (you can sort of see why the play struck some as disorienting). The rap against Sondheim by some (like fellow lyricist-composer Jerry Herman, in a staggeringly ungracious speech he made when his La Cage Aux Folles somehow beat out Sunday in the Park With George at the Tony Awards) is that his melodies are “unhummable,” but at least half of Merrily’s tunes are ones anyone can whistle. It’s a story and a score that feels modern, and taps into the issues of commerce and creativity (it’s like a companion piece to Sunday in the Park in that way). You can understand why Greta Gerwig interpolated it into Lady Bird; why Richard Linklater has embarked on a decades-long Merrily film project (I hope I live long enough to see it) starring Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein. If you’ve ever sat on a metaphorical roof and projected your dreams into the universe, it speaks to you.
VIDEO: Sunday In The Park With George (1986)
Others will rhapsodize about Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and Assassins (running in NYC now). And his lyrics for Gypsy (“Clear the decks, clear the tracks, you’ve got nothing to do but relax,” Mama Rose bellows, sounding anything but relaxed). And “Send in the Clowns.” I’ve always found it hilariously apt that only Barbra Streisand, of the hundreds of singers who have sung it, had the chutzpah to ask Sondheim to write an additional verse “explaining” the song, like it isn’t right there in the original lyric. I might take a look at the Mandy Patinkin–Bernadette Peters Sunday DVD, or watch Adam Driver sing “Being Alive” in Marriage Story, or listen to Nilsson sing “Marry Me a Little” and Lee Remick’s wonderful “Anyone Can Whistle.”
But the first LP I reached for after I heard Sondheim had passed away was the Original Cast Recording of Merrily We Roll Along. The friends singing “Our Time” imagine a future where they come back to their building’s rooftop, and there’s a plaque. “This is where we began/Being what we can.”
VIDEO: Stephen Sondheim talks about Merrily We Roll Along
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