Collected Works: Music
Merrily We Roll Along
by Stephen Sondheim
In the mid-fifties, a youthful, optimistic Frank Shepherd hangs out with his friends on a New York rooftop, surveying the skies and asserting that: ‘It’s our turn coming through.’ In the mid-seventies, a cynical, ageing Franklin Shepherd hosts his many hangers-on in a Los Angeles mansion, scanning the crowds and leaning once more upon that phrase from many years ago. Acutely aware of the irony, he repeats the words, this time to himself: ‘It’s our turn coming through.’
Merrily We Roll Along plays out in reverse chronology; when we hear young Frank’s uplifting anthem, we are familiar with his full story. A promising composer, he spends his life chasing wealth and fame, an act of self-sabotage that climaxes in a nihilistic chorus. Along the way, we explore the conflict of artistic authenticity and commercial success, against a backdrop that moves from a sense of widespread distrust following Nixon’s fall, to the hope felt prior to Kennedy’s presidency.
But Stephen Sondheim’s music undercuts such exaggerated binaries. ‘It Started Out Like a Song’, one of Frank’s own compositions, appears variously as an uptempo jive, a smoochy ballad, and a Broadway belter. The love song ‘Not a Day Goes By’ is treated to a reprise, in which the content is barely altered but the original’s sentiment is inverted. Material morphs until it is unrecognisable, paralleling the extent of the character transformations.
The work references a classic era of bright-eyed musicals, both in parody and in earnest. This ambivalence ensures that Sondheim never swings too far in one direction or the other. Theatre and the movies, social responsibility and personal gain: all is weighed up inconclusively. Change is neither a good nor a bad thing. Neither Frank nor Franklin is entirely right. As we barrel our way through the unpredictable numbers, our perspective shifts along with us.
Words by Lewis Coenen-Rowe
Question of the day
Here Lies Love by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. A rose-tinted disco-opera based on the life of Philippine First Lady, Imelda Marcos, with immersive set design and clever choreography. (→)
– Áine Mangaoang, musicologist (via The Brief →)