If you know me, then you know how much I revere the art and artistry of Stephen Sondheim. His ability to drive narratives with some of the most stirring music and insightful wordplay is beyond compare. More, he is one of the few songwriters who can give voice to the many selves we carry inside.
It’s been illuminating to see his most iconic shows on Broadway, particularly since turning the ages of the characters that impacted me most. “Company,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Follies” and “Gypsy” all transcended what I initially felt for such musicals a kid. As an adult, his contemplative themes of youth, age, fear, death, life and, especially love, shed their romance and to become something tangible. The intricacies of the melodies and the precision of his lyrics revealed to me as much about the real world as any relationship or friendship I’ve encountered in over 40 years of living. I hope to tell him that in person some day.
One Sondheim show that has eluded me is “Merrily We Roll Along,” which annoys me because of its connection to my high school days. Believe it or not, I dared to act and sing while at El Rancho High. Our drama teacher Stan Wlasick was often bold in his choices for this Chicano-centric school located in the jewel of the SGV, Pico Rivera. He was going to stage “Merrily…,” a show even New Yorkers failed to embrace when it debuted on Broadway in the early 80s. But the show had so much to say about the idealism of youth and how we corrupt ourselves with success and other trappings of adult life.
Granted, what do any teenagers know about such themes? Hell, I played disillusioned and unhappily married Dr. Jim Bayliss in the ERHS production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” (A harbinger to come? No. But it was so cool to tell that to Miller in person. Short version: he laughed over my anecdote. I’ll save the full version for my book.)
I so wanted to play the part of writer Charley Kringas. I felt such a connection to him. He was the second banana to his glamorous bestie Frank Shephard and I understood that. (I wasn’t meant to be center stage, even then. But I knew I had something to contribute to the show that is life, you know? I just didn’t want to be languishing in the background.)
Charley and Frank formed part of a trio of friends, which included Mary, who carries an undying torch for Frank. The beauty of their story is that it is told in reverse. We see what they’ve become at the start, and it’s not good. Frank is an jaded egomaniac, about to divorce his glamorous second wife. Charley carries bitter resentment over losing his best friend and writing partner. Mary’s unrequited love is steeped in acrimony and alcohol. But, what makes “Merrily…” such a profound piece is seeing where they all begin. They are the epitome of youth, looking at the future in the horizon with such hopes and dreams.
We’ve all entertained thoughts of “If only I could go back…” It isn’t magic that fuels “Merrily,” just this voyeuristic look into people’s lives in reverse. It is an imperfect show, but it is an unforgettable one.
I was able to witness a digital broadcast of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production last year with my dear friend, Mimi G., herself a young actress with her star on the rise. (Now that I think of it, we were the embodiment of what the show was about. Maturity and youth. Interesting….) Needless to say, we both had strong emotional reactions to our respective halves of the show. It was a near perfect production, but man, I want to see it staged for real.
One of the key songs, outside of the longing ballad “Not a Day Goes By” is Mary’s acceptance of how life will disappoint you. Given what’s been happening around me of late, the song “Now You Know” seems awfully apropos. At one point, she sings:
“It’s called letting go your illusions and don’t confuse them with dreams.”
I don’t confuse illusions with dreams, at least not anymore. And life can be crummy. But we don’t have to fall apart, even if it feels like everything is so broken. The emotions of this complex year did overwhelm me. And we’re not out of the woods yet. But none of us are alone, either.
Now you know…
Monday, October 27. Written and posted from Wayne Avenue Manor in South Pasadena.
NOW YOU KNOW by Stephen Sondheim
“All right, now you know:
Life is crummy.
Well, now you know.
I mean, big surprise:
People love you and tell you lies.
Bricks can fall out of clear blue skies.
Put your dimple down,
Now you know.
Okay, there you go ?
Learn to live with it,
Now you know.
It’s called flowers wilt,
It’s called apples rot,
It’s called theives get rich and saints get shot,
It’s called God don’t answer prayers a lot,
Okay, now you know.
Okay, now you know,
Now forget it.
Don’t fall apart at the seams.
It’s called letting go your illusions,
And don’t confuse them with dreams.
Yes sir, quite a blow ?
Don’t regret it,
And don’t let’s go to extremes.
It’s called what’s your choice?
It’s called count to ten.
It’s called burn your bridges, start again.
You should burn them every now and then
Or you’ll never grow!
Because now you grow.
That’s the killer, is
Now you grow.
You’re right, nothing’s fair,
And it’s all a plot,
And tomorrow doesn’t look so hot ?
Right, you better look at what you’ve got:
Over here, hello?
Okay, now you know,