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Composing All Our Yesterdays: The Genius of Sondheim's Merrily Score

“Yesterday is done,” a voice sings to the opening chords of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Through the windows of an expensive apartment, the predawn glow illuminates a solitary figure. It is Frank, the disillusioned composer who has lost touch with the artistic dreams of his youth and spends his days adrift among the rich and shallow, mindlessly moving from one job to the next. Embittered by a career built on compromise, Frank illustrates the simple truth of these opening lines. “Yesterday is done” — there is no returning to correct the choices of your past. Notorious for his devilish wit and penchant for resisting simple analysis Sondheim writes this insightful first line only to immediately undermine it. From the first glimpse of our jaded protagonist, Merrily slides backwards in time and, with each new scene, the audience rediscovers a piece of his youthful hope. For the viewer settling in to their next Sondheim musical, yesterday is not done — it is the path that lies ahead.

Following Sondheim’s lead, the Huntington is taking its audiences back several years in Sondheim’s career from last year’s production of Sunday in the Park with George, which debuted in 1984, to 1981 — the year of Merrily We Roll Along. At the peak of their joint success, Sondheim’s collaborator Harold Prince proposed a musical adaptation of a favorite Kaufman and Hart play entitled Merrily We Roll Along, known for its backwards storytelling. The challenge of reverse chronology intrigued Sondheim, who had already acquired a reputation for subverting traditional Broadway forms.

Ironically, the familiar song structures of Golden Era musicals — from which Sondheim famously rebelled — provided the perfect historical soundscape for a story that moves from 1976 to 1957. A cheeky response to the recurring critique that his tunes were not hummable, the return to traditional form also fortified Merrily with what scholar Wendy Smith deems “his most engaging and accessible score.” As an unfailingly original composer Sondheim would never let traditional forms impede his powers of musical ingenuity. If the songs themselves followed convention, the backward narrative gave Sondheim the chance to arrange these songs unconventionally. This resulted in Sondheim developing an utterly new tool for musical storytelling: the reprise that precedes its original melody.

Composing on a backward timeline, Sondheim experimented with the story’s competing themes of disillusionment and promise and found a way to weave both feelings into a single moment through melody. In a traditional story of disillusionment, the lovers’ ballad comes first and is reprised with undertones of weariness and sadness. In Merrily We Roll Along, the order is reversed. The first time the audience hears Sondheim’s famous “Not a Day Goes By,” it is loaded with the heartbreak and betrayal of a relationship gone sour. The audience feels the emotional weight of a reprise without knowing how the characters have come to this place in their lives. When it reappears at the young protagonist’s wedding, the song is imbued with hope and passion. For the audience, the melody has evolved from tragedy into optimism. At the same time, however, the audience must listen to the optimistic young lovers with the knowledge of what their future holds, simultaneously hearing promise and disillusionment. Characteristically, Sondheim’s compositional knack for storytelling brings his audience to a place of emotional complexity, allowing it to be read as both a tragic tale and a hopeful discovery of dreams. When we return to the initial “Yesterday is done,” how do we interpret it? As a fatalistic take on the uncompromising motion of time? Or a summons to move passionately towards a hopeful future? This skillful blend of opposing themes that challenges audiences to find their own interpretation recalls another genius of dramatic storytelling. As director Maria Friedman put it, “Stephen is simply the best — musical theatre’s Shakespeare.”

 

– SARAH SCHNEBLY


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South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA: 527 Tremont Street, Boston MA 02116
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