MERRILEMENT WE RIDE
Hayes Theater, October 26
It was a brave move. A more timid theater may have hesitated to reopen with Stephen Sondheim’s biggest flop on Broadway. Corn Joyfully won’t flop this time, and sing It’s a blow won’t be the excruciating experience it must have been for the casting in 1981.
The causes of Broadway’s failure have been split between Hal Prince’s production, venomous reviews, and convoluted narrative. Sondheim (music and lyrics) and George Furth (book) tell the story backwards, starting in 1975, when we see where Frank (a songwriter turned Hollywood producer), Charley (a playwright / lyricist) and Mary (a novelist turned drinker) have finished. Then, in two and a half hours, we return to their first idealism of 1957.
Keeping track of this is probably not as demanding on audiences today as it was 40 years ago: we’re more used to movies and plays that alter the timeline. Although you need to concentrate, it is easily deciphered. If the downside to telling the story this way is meeting Frank while he is gorged with greed – having essentially given up on his calling – the upside is that a pretty dark story about ambition, friendship. , unrequited love, failed ideals and longing for the past come to a happy end!
Sondheim associates this stimulating narrative with what at first glance is some of his more conventional Broadway music, including the exquisite optimism of Doors openning. All is not quite as it seems, however. Sondheim described his composition process for Joyfully like “like modular furniture”: continually pilfering your own ideas, so that the bridge of one song becomes the verse of another song, and so on. It wasn’t just about creating musical puzzles or saving work, but revisiting the motifs through the evolving prism of the characters’ perspectives in the backstory.
Dean Bryant’s production takes the many facets of this ingenious work and, for the most part, pulls them as tense as piano strings. He didn’t make Prince’s mistake of picking children too young to be convincing in the opening scenes, nor did he work too hard to portray the growing youth, relying heavily on its actors.
Andrew Coshan is particularly effective as Frank in this regard, able to take the years from the beginning bump to a striking youthfulness in the end, when the character naively believes he can change the world through his art. Ainsley Melham brings a load of charisma and panache to Charley, the only one of the three to cling to his ideals, paying the price in bitterness.
Mary of Elise McCann is a wonderful creation, reveling in the scorpion spirit she was reduced to after a life of longing for Frank and having a bestselling novel before she was ready for it. (In fact, Sondheim and Furth should have given Mary a bigger slice of the action.)