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Inspired by the soon-to-open documentary, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, about Stephen Sondheim's notorious flop Merrily We Roll Along, a lifelong theatre lover looks back at how personally prophetic the show proved to be
On an October afternoon in 1981 around lunch time, I glanced out my office window and saw a crowd in front of the Alvin Theatre. It was a Thursday -- not the usual Broadway matinee weekday. Something was up and I wanted in on it.
Since I idolized Stephen Sondheim, I knew that the first preview for his new musical, Merrily We Roll Along, was scheduled for that very evening at the Alvin. I surmised the crowd was there for the final run-through, so I rushed downstairs for my "lunch hour," milled about with the invited guests, nonchalantly entered the theatre, and saw the show with what was probably the friendliest audience the cast would ever experience.
As an aspiring songwriter, I had seen Sondheim's previous show, Sweeney Todd, three times during previews, studying the changes and taking notes, training for the day when I might have a show of my own on Broadway. By fall 1981, I was a sophomore in the famed BMI Musical Theatre Workshop under the tutelage of Lehman Engel. So I knew I would be seeing Merrily again during previews in order to observe Sondheim and director Harold Prince at work.
Based on Kaufman and Hart's play of the same name, Merrily progresses in reverse chronological order, portraying the evolution of a friendship among three artists whose early dreams go astray. Cast primarily with fresh young talent (including then-little-known Jason Alexander, Lonny Price, Liz Callaway, Tonya Pinkins, and Giancarlo Esposito), the show was supposed to be their big break. Everyone involved thought they had a hit on their hands -- until the scathing reviews came out.
The lessons I learned during that final run-through and the four additional performances I attended during the musical's brief run illustrated the challenges of making a musical, and how even the most successful theatre artists can fail. But I could not anticipate all of the other things Merrily would teach me throughout its subsequent production history.
"Dreams don't die, but keep an eye on your dream"
Only a few months later, I had moved from my entry-level job at PolyGram Records to the RCA Record Club, where I somehow persuaded my superiors to donate a box of the newly released original cast recording of Merrily to my BMI classmates. Within a year, my "day job" began to require so much of my time that I didn't produce enough material to keep me in the BMI Workshop, and I was cut. I assured myself this was a temporary setback, and resolved not to lose sight of my goal of writing for the theatre. I continued composing, and finished a deferred Master's degree.
"And before you know where you are, there you are"
Eventually I moved to RCA's classical division, which also encompassed RCA Victor and its Broadway catalogue. Others were charged with the theatre recordings, however, and my day job -- which had metamorphosed into a career -- took me further away from my own music. Still, I saw every musical I could, as some of my BMI classmates went on to have their own shows produced.
"Time goes by, and hopes go dry, but you still can try for your dream"
In 1990, for the first time since its original run, I saw Merrily again at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The show had been revised by its creators, and was cast with better-known performers, including Victor Garber, Becky Ann Baker, David Garrison, and Marin Mazzie. Ever the observer, I noted the changes with interest. The show was smoother, albeit still problematic.
My RCA career was progressing, but I hadn't composed a note in over two years. My lyric writing enlivened many a company farewell gathering, however, as I had become the go-to guy for crafting verses, often parodies of well-known songs. (Over the years, I amassed a portfolio of well over a hundred such poems in a variety of forms.) I still jotted down ideas for my own projects and filed them away for future use, assuming I one day would return to my original path.
By 1994, when the York Theatre Company staged Merrily Off-Broadway, I had been promoted at RCA and was deep into the business. I still attended musicals as often as my schedule permitted, though I rarely took notes (except for Sondheim shows, of course). This version of Merrily, which had Malcolm Gets, Michele Pawk, Adriane Lenox, and Danny Burstein in its cast, worked well, though the show's focus on the postponement or abandonment of dreams began to make me a little uncomfortable.
"Tend your dream"
On a European promotional tour in 1996 with a world-famous opera singer, during a particularly honest conversation, I confided that I felt ambivalent about not composing. Her response, while gentle, was reproachful: that for those privileged to have such a gift, it was a sin not to use it.
Over the next several years, I scheduled "composing vacations" from which I would return with sketches that went into the same corner of my dusty desk as the ideas I had jotted down earlier in the decade. I was getting much better at closing than opening drawers. I began looking for another job.
The Kennedy Center's 2002 production of Merrily (with Raúl Esparza, Michael Hayden, Miriam Shor, and Emily Skinner) was the one at which I turned to the old friend who had accompanied me and said, "I don't think I can bear to see this show again. It's too much of a rebuke."
"How did you ever get there from here?"
I was cut loose from RCA in 2005 (yes, I penned my own final farewell poem) with an early-retirement package that was less a golden parachute than a bronze flotation device. I told myself that I would return to my early dream of writing for the theatre, but never kept that promise out of some long-ingrained combination of perfectionism, self-doubt, and fear of failure. Instead, I have consulted for various record labels, worked in public relations, and generally kept my hand in the business.
As a charter subscriber to the New York City Center Encores! series, I prided myself on never having missed a production. However, when Merrily was announced for 2012, even with Lin-Manuel Miranda, Colin Donnell, and Celia Keenan-Bolger, I had to overcome considerable reluctance.
Any time I attend a show I've seen before, particularly one with special meaning to me, I experience it simultaneously in the present and the past. During the Encores performance, I alternated among my 2012, 2002, 1994, 1990, and 1981 selves, with little vertigo and surprising equanimity. I somehow had come through to the other side of my conflict into a kind of acceptance. Finally, Merrily could be about someone else, not just me.
"Behold the hills of tomorrow!"
Now, it's 2016, and I am looking forward to seeing Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, the documentary about Merrily directed by original cast member Lonny Price. Like me, many of those actors have rolled along very different paths than they expected back then. To this recounting of that bittersweet experience, I imagine I will bring just two selves when I see it: the 1981 dreamer, just shy of his 27th birthday, looking forward to a life in music; and another dreamer, 35 years older, two years into his first marriage, looking toward a limitless sky.
Daniel Guss is a native New Yorker. During his career at RCA, he reissued over 1,000 compact discs, ranging from the recordings of such classical superstars as Arturo Toscanini, Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, Enrico Caruso, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leontyne Price, and James Galway, to classical music compilations and Broadway cast albums.