Sondheim’s musical “Merrily We Roll Along” is currently enjoying a revival in New York and I couldn’t be happier that it’s back. The show has an unforgettable score and a legendary history of being a brilliant, beloved failure. Well, “failure”‘s not a really fair description. Merrily challenges audiences and casts because of the way they tell the story: it’s backward.
It’s a pretty simple story told the traditional way. Two young guys and a girl are best friends and colleagues, all working to break into show business. They hang out together, brainstorm ideas and cheer each other on while the rest of the world ignores them. Eventually, they each catch that all-important break but success does what years of failure couldn’t do; it splits up the team. Like I said, a simple story and a sad one when you tell it that way.
But tell it back to front and watch what happens! Right out the door, there’s the climactic fight that murders a friendship that existed for decades! Then back up a bit and you watch the information bomb drop that makes that last fight inevitable. Back it up again and you see the same characters again, a bit younger and nicer but making mistakes you know they’re going to regret. And on and on it goes, each layer revealing more of what makes you care about the people and hate the disastrous choices you know they’re making. It’s a brilliant, difficult technique and that’s why I love it. Because it’s not what story you tell, but how you tell it.
…and how its told
If each story is a raw diamond, the way its told cuts it, like the jeweler. Each choice brings out different facets. For example, let’s take perspective. Change the perspective in a story and you go from Wizard of Oz to Wicked. Or from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead to Hamlet. Now make your narrator unreliable and you have stories with twist endings like “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” or “The Haunting of Hill House“. Or show that the story is bigger than anyone imagines by showing the same event from lots of different, limited perspectives (Rashomon). These are all literary techniques authors use to make a story sparkle.
Long-running TV shows love messing around with storytelling techniques. They keep the show interesting and give watchers new and layered insights into the characters. The point is how the story is told is at least as important as important as the story itself. And smart writers (and readers) know that.
So, welcome back, Merrily We Roll Along. I hope you enjoy a successful production. After what you’ve been through, you deserve something good. And thank you for your clever story-telling device. It’s a crazy, brilliant idea.