michael j. morris

Merrily We Roll Along

This post will be a mild deviation from the usual content of this blog. I do not normally offer my thoughts on musical theatre. But last night I saw Available Light Theatre‘s production of Merrily We Roll Along (directed by John Dranschak), and not only was the production spectacular, it represents yet another vibrant facet of the arts community in Columbus. Beyond (but implicit in) the virtues of this particular show/book/score, this production represents the hard work and collaboration of a long list of contributors, and is yet another reminder of the great talent that makes up the Columbus community in which I am currently situated.

I suppose to start I might mention that I have had an aversion to theatre the last several years. As my own work and interests in my field have become increasingly non-representational, it has become more and more difficult for me to sustain an interest in work that (however strong, however relevant) is unabashedly representational. The dances that I make and the dance that interests me most is not about representing anyone other than the dancers themselves in the situations in which they are participating (choreography); while a viewer of this work may have a sense of its “about-ness” (the persistent question after dance performances: “what was it about?”), it is primarily “about” its own being, bodies moving with particular qualities, in particular configurations and modalities. These dances are physical explorations, and any spectacle that they might have to offer is the effect of these physical journeys. In my experience, theatre cannot achieve this non-referentiality in the same way; it does not aspire to do so. Theatre is ultimately predicated of (varying degrees of) illusionism, providing an experience that synthesizes in the viewers experience as something more than memorized lines and blocking, lighting effects, rolling set pieces, and music running alongside the action of the show. It (in my best experiences of theatre) seeks to coalesce into a representation (by which I am merely referring to the fact that the actors on stage are not the characters they are portraying, but representations of them; the sets represent something other than they are; the passage of time is effected through manipulations of light and sounds; etc.) that may even seduce the viewer into forgetting its representationality, the hidden crafts that have produced the “dream world” into which we are all together escaping, be it for entertainment, amusement, or catharsis. I’ll admit, my lingering interests in theatre have been more about witnessing the functionality of the production, watching with an awareness that things are happening because a stage manager called a cue, the synch up between actor/singer an musician has been carefully rehearsed, how blocking and choreography cites an intersection of bodies (the actors’ with the choreographer or director), how the costumes and sets and props and lights function as physical citations for hours and hours of labor that are then walked about, carried around, and cycled through by actors, stage hands, and lighting engineers. I am fascinated by cueing systems and the kinds of attention (I think there are many) that are called upon in order for systems of cueing to function. When I watch theatre, this is the sensibility with which I find myself watching; only in the most fleeting of moments do I find myself “carried away” by the illusion of the spectacle, and even then it is with some irritation that I realize that I have lost sight of what I am actually experiencing in favor of what is being represented to me.

These were the biases with which I went in to Merrily We Roll Along. If I’m honest, besides wanting to support the arts in Columbus, I went mainly for the music. I’ve appreciated Sondheim’s work in the past (Into the Woods and Assassins linger as fond memories) for its witty and poignant lyrics and complex/difficult musicality (I don’t find Sondheim very “hum-able,” and alongside my tastes for Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt (among others), this “difficulty” is an asset). Despite the narrowness of interest with which I went in, I was greatly rewarded by this show, and left speculating some of the many virtues (which I mean most closely perhaps in the Platonian sense of a thing fulfilling its own function/design) of theatre as an art.

The fine work of the cast must be acknowledged; several performances in particular continue to linger with me the day after. Heather Carvel (“Mary”) was a pleasure from the moment the lights came up. The humor of her delivery and the richness of her singing voice were immediately catching. But my admiration of her work went beyond this apparent skill. I felt as if Carvel was putting herself through the physical experience of her character. While never fully losing the understanding that she was not “Mary,” what captivated me was how I watched her approximate this character, this other woman’s life: I heard it in her voice, I saw in in the flush of her cheeks, the furrow of her brow, the way she touched and was touched. Her performance for me became a demonstration of what it might be to interrogate and inhabit the life of another, to approximate that life (or lives . . . I am suddenly struck by the recognition that even this character is a representation imagined by the writers, an imaginary that has been inhabited by others. The actor’s work then becomes a representation of the writers via their imagination of this character), and in doing so potentially demonstrate and even discover something of oneself. The imaginary becomes a vehicle for possible transformation, examination, and interpersonal sympathy.

Nick Lingnofski (“Charley”) was also a delight to watch. His timing and humor felt poignant (I remember thinking to myself on more than one occasion, “That was precisely the perfect moment at which he could have done/said that”), a mark of real talent and skill. I also found myself a little lost in watching how he moved, how he carried himself. I hate when people talk about a performer’s “physicality” (“Oh, I loved his physicality!” “She was such a physical performer!”); it’s not very descriptive and it seems to overlook the fact that “physicality” is an inescapable condition of being. What I found entrancing was the way in which Lingnofski provided a richness to the content of his character through the ways that he articulated his body: how he sat in a chair, or paced across the stage, the agitation across his shoulders that seemed to extend all the way down to and back up from the earth. His physical description of himself/his character gave me much more “present” in which to inhabit . . . by which I mean that unlike the lines that he was saying, which were themselves lively and invested, his body was not a reanimation or reenactment: for me it became the place at which his engagement with the character lived itself out. I’m afraid my predilections are showing, my preference for the incontrovertible reality of the body as opposed to the illusionistic facets of theatre, but this was part of what I appreciated most in Lingnofski’s performance. There was an honesty (humanity?) in his body that cannot be faked, that cannot be imagined; even in the pursuit of the approximation of a fiction, the body of the actor is never lost to the illusion that he portrays.

I was also swept away in the performance of Kim Garrison Hopcraft (“Gussie”). All of the characters in the show were more or less compositions of transformation in retrograde (the show begins at a moment in time, then moves backwards through time, showing how these characters arrived at where they ended up), and the complexity of the emotional gamut of each character was evident. However, the transformation of “Gussie” was especially poignant for me, and that poignancy was enacted expertly by Kim Garrison Hopcraft. Hopcraft’s singing voice was sensational and a perfect compliment to her beauty. But what attached me to her performance most was the nuance with which she presented the veneer of a wildly successful star, the chords of insecurity running through confidence and charisma, the anger and devastation of becoming no longer desired, and the heavy weight of a character whose life was never truly happy.  “Gussie” also has some of the most clever dialogue and one-liners in the show, and their delivery was, again, truly expert.

I also need to mention the tremendously successful work of the unseen orchestra for the show. I am not a musician, but I appreciate the complexity of Sondheim, and the musicians for the show, under the direction of Pam Welsh-Huggins, fulfilled the score beautifully. I was most impressed with the synergy between the actors/singers and the musicians, the easiness (which is certainly not easy) with which they found and followed one another. Having the musicians hidden from view also inspired contemplations of the “invisible physical participations” in this imaginary world: music that drifts in and out, lights that perform their own show concurrent to the main event, etc. Again, I am drawn to consider the body, and the effects of the body as an extension of corporeality, the relationship between lighting changes to lighting boards, aural landscapes to keyboards, and at all of these unseen instruments, unseen bodies, physically present and participating within an attentive exchange with the actors in plain view.

After the show, I was left considering the unique virtues of musical theatre. If there is a primary distinction between theatre and dance that occurs to me at the moment (a distinction to which I am certain there are exceptions), it is that theatre seems to be predicated on an effable reality, dance on an ineffable reality. The core of the theatrical production is that which is written, in words, the script that then becomes supported by the score, enacted by the actors, envisioned by the designers, etc. It starts with words, and as such is primarily concerned with the reality that can be described in words. Dance, in contrast, is concerned with the physical reality of the body; it addresses those facets of existence for which there is not easy or apparent language, a reality as it is lived (as the body), not as it is described. Again, I am certain there are exceptions to this dichotomy (immediately I am reminded that music, like dance, addresses a kind of ineffable reality, a meaningfulness that does not translate into words, and this becomes a major factor in the production of musical theatre), but I offer it as a construction through which to frame my thoughts/experience. The real art/craft of theatre, then, becomes the way in which this effable reality is addressed, what it can reveal, what it can call to memory or appreciation. This becomes supported by all these various elements (music, costumes, lights, sets, props, etc. etc. etc.), all to coalesce the effable reality to which it makes reference. If there is a further virtue to musical theatre that occurs to me having seen Merrily We Go Along it is its capacity to give words to those experiences, thoughts, feelings, and desires to which we rarely give voice. Like poetry perhaps, more than straight prose, it puts words and song to those moments of experience that linger with us, for which we have words, but they are words that we keep to ourselves. The catharsis of musical theatre might then be the experience of having someone say/sing those “lines” that we say or have said to ourselves that we perhaps have never said out loud. I felt the pang of recognition when “Mary” sang (paraphrased) about “starting to no recognize who have become, and starting to not care,” or “Gussie’s” opening of act two song reflecting on her insecurities around whether or not “Frank” really loves her, or the refrain about finding problems with what is because of what was or what never was, etc. Yes, it is overt. It is explicit, and potentially poignant in its explication. But I think it is in the explication of these private texts, grounded in the situational particularities of plot (as opposed to the “meaningful” pop song that appears universal in its scope/situation), that musical theatre offers its profoundly effecting experience. Sondheim in particular has a real genius for further enriching this poignancy through the repetition of lines and melodies throughout a single work, alluding to the lived experience constantly forming itself in and from the materials of memory, each experience calling up others, and at least in part taking on its meaningfulness in the degree to which it corresponds to that landscape of memory.

Finally, a brief account of my thoughts on this plot. Without giving away details (because I am highly recommending that you see and support this production), I will say that the plot progresses in reverse, showing us where characters ended up, and tracing their lives to earlier, younger, more idealistic times. Themes include “How did you get here where you are?” and following dreams. An easy reading of the show might settle on a didactic message of “always follow your dreams, because if you don’t, if you compromise them or let them go, unhappiness is the result.” This is an easy answer, and I do not think it is the only one possible for this production. Instead, I left feeling something more like the treasured memory of what life felt like when everything seemed possible, and life was there for the making. This stands for me in contrast to the reality that often not everything is possible, and life cannot always be whatever we make of it. Life is full of difficult decisions between one desire and another, one dream and the next, one love and the love of another. The tag line for this show on AVLT’s website is, “You can be anything you want. But you can’t be everything you want.” This sentiment echoes my thoughts after the show. In each moment, we perhaps stand before a field of infinite possibilities; but in order to move forward, we must make choices, and each choice is to the exclusion of every other possible choice. It seems to attest to the inevitable experience of loss and melancholy in process of living. Joni Mitchell sang, “Well, something’s lost but something’s gained/In living every day/I’ve looked at life from both sides now/From win and lose and still somehow/It’s life’s illusions I recall/I really don’t know life at all.” Merrily We Roll Along for me functions as a kind of homage to this reality, giving me the opportunity to look back at the time of life at which everything seemed possible, when the ongoing balancing act of loss and gain seemed less apparent, and endless happiness seemed within grasp if we were to only pursue it. But it also gave me the opportunity to grieve the fact that life does not work this way, there is an experience of loss with each choice we make, “in living every day.” As with most of the art that I find most meaningful, this production gives expression to the range of experience, and situates (for me) the value of living in the experience of that range.

If you are in the Columbus area, I recommend this show to you. Tickets are “pay what you want,” and need to be reserved in advance. Again, this is a vibrant facet of the arts community in Columbus. Please go support their work, and participate in keeping this conversation going.


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