Whether you loved it 42 years ago or sometime after, here’s a way to have even more respect for MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.
Read the original play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. You’ll find that George Furth and Stephen Sondheim greatly improved it.
First and undoubtedly least, they renamed the characters.
Richard Niles became Franklin Shepard.
Jonathan Crale would be Charley Kringas.
Julia Glenn morphed into Mary Flynn.
The time frame would be different, too. The play regressed from 1934 (when it opened at the Music Box) to 1918; the musical traveled from 1981 (when it debuted at the Alvin) to 1957.
The play starts in Sands Point, Long Island, where “men are in tails and women in evening dress” for a party celebrating both the debut of Richard’s new play and his 40th birthday. Julia is there, too, drinking away, as she does in the musical.
What’s odd here though is that the guests are involved in various activities. Four people are actually playing bridge. Whether you prefer Sondheim’s “Rich and Happy” in the 1981 original or “That Frank” in the current one, at least everyone at the party is concentrating on the host.
Julia says that “In January, I’ll put a piece of paper in the typewriter and if anything comes of that, I’ll be very much surprised.” However, the play doesn’t establish that she ever wrote and finished a good debut novel and was once a success. For all we know from what K&H tell us, she may be someone who’s just started writing.
Among the guests are Cyrus Winthrop, who’s Mr. Cellophane in the best sense of the word: he invented it, so he’s rich and happy, too. Winthrop pooh-poohs his wealth in a most pretentious way. “The art galleries get most of it,” he says grandly. One artist that he collects is Jonathan Crale, feeling that only “every hundred years or so” there’s a genius such as he.”
And that’s when everyone goes quiet – except for Julia, who informs him that Jonathan “painted a horrible picture of our host.”
(More on that later.)
Rave reviews come in, which don’t please Althea, Richard’s second wife, who knows he’s fooling around. It’s one reason why Julia expresses feelings that start out similar to Mary’s – “I’d rather be what I am” – but the musical draws the line at what K&H had Julia call herself: “a drunken whore.”
Given that we’ve just met the character, we have every right to take that remark at face value and assume that she has indeed become a prostitute. Smart of Furth to drop that description.
The next scene travels back in time in both properties where a producer turns pauper asks his former star for money. The profound difference is that P.J. Morton was merely Althea’s producer, while Joe Josephson was Gussie’s producer-husband. That it was once a closer relationship makes the situation that much more moving.
Julia and Jonathan enter. She’s mildly drunk from “sitting in speakeasies”; he’s wealthy, but unpretentious and dresses in a way that shows clothes don’t make the man. We learn that Jonathan painted a portrait of Richard holding Althea with one hand and a cash register in the other to comment on his values.
The relationship between Frank and Charley is closer because they were collaborators, unlike Richard and Jonathan who worked in separate fields. How much stronger is seeing the death of Frank and Charley’s friendship happening in present time right before our eyes in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” rather than just hearing about a painting long after it was painted.
Frank also handles the situation better, too. He holds in his anger and announces that he’ll never again speak to Charley. Richard literally arrives and slugs Jonathan in the jaw.
In 1926, Richard gets a call from his lawyer about the joint custody he has with his ex. (She’s Helen, not Beth.) Richard says that although he’s entitled to have the boy for the next six months, he’ll waive that right and have Helen keep him.
This makes him terribly unfeeling. Compare this to Frank, who’s delighted to see his child, who’s delighted to see him, too.
Good friend Jonathan enters. He missed the opening of Richard’s hit because he was in jail. He was arrested after he “beat up a cop” during a protest march in which he was picketing. Charley instead protests with his pen, writing TAKE A LEFT, which we assume is a liberal-leaning play.
But Jonathan did catch up with Richard’s play, which “by the time I reached Broadway and 45th Street, I forgot all about it.” More to the point, Jonathan says, “All I’ve heard you talk about is how much the play grossed and what you got for the movie rights.” Think of how Sondheim embellished that with his masterpiece “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”
But Jonathan, working in another discipline, isn’t directly impacted by Richard’s aesthetic choices. Charley is, because he and Frank had been working together.
Jonathan is also concerned with Richard’s personal life. “You wouldn’t marry Althea, would you?” he asks, to which Richard remarks she already has a husband. But soon after Jonathan leaves, Althea arrives, who announces that she just left Harry.
Who’s he? Mentioning this character who’s unknown to us doesn’t have the punch of Gussie leaving Joe, whom we’ve met.
Back to 1925. Jonathan and Julia — who’s not yet succumbed to liquor — are looking forward to going to the pier and meeting Richard who’s returning from an ocean voyage. Richard surprises them by showing up at the apartment (probably so management could save the cost of another set).
Jonathan and Julia expect a big reunion dinner, but Richard says he’s met some lovely people in the ship, and he’s having a farewell dinner with them.
Furth did better: Frank tells Charley and Mary to run along and he’ll soon join them at the restaurant. He even means it until Gussie shows up. We feel for Charley and Mary, for we can envision them waiting for Frank and becoming more and more disappointed as they eventually realize that he simply has brushed them off. Gussie is a stronger temptation for Frank than Richard’s simply having a dinner with new friends.
Jonathan and Julia rue “that day at the court house when we made him get on that boat.” Let’s go there in 1924 and see the newly divorced Richard receive their advice to sail and get away from it all.
Sondheim instead has a hard-nosed Mary state that “Now you know” about the real world: “Thieves get rich and saints get shot.” That gives Frank license to pull out of his funk. In the original production, seeing the Act One curtain fall as Frank make a spectacular recovery and started dancing joyously with Gussie was most potent.
K&H take us to 1923 and the home of Althea and Harry, who were once vaudevillians, until Harry groomed his wife into the star she’s become. Richard and his wife Helen enter. K&H show us their opinion of her. Seven times that she’s asked a question, she answers with a simple, unembellished “Yes.” Other responses include “How do you do?”, “How’s that?”, “No, thank you” and “Goodbye.” K&H give us the impression that Richard would be better off without her.
F&S didn’t make Beth a cipher, gave her so much more to play, and made us care for her. Remember, too, that she was a vital third of the cast of FRANKLY FRANK; we get the impression she could have had a career had she not married Frank.
In the musical, Joe is approached to invest in this new-fangled device called an answering machine; he pooh-poohs the idea, and turns it down; had he invested, he wouldn’t have wound up hoping for handouts from Gussie.
K&H instead have Simon Weintraub approach Helen’s father, who has “a paper and twine business,” a modest income and lifestyle. Yes, his cellophane idea will turn him into Cyrus Winthrop, but it’s no wonder that he can’t get Helen’s father to invest; the man simply doesn’t have money to burn. How amazing that K&H, who traveled in rarefied circles, didn’t think to do what Furth did: pick someone wealthy who had extra money to invest.
At this point, Helen isn’t at all supportive as Beth is. Helen grouses to her parents, “You’ve got to take a college course before you can come see one of his plays. That’s why we’re so rich.” Having Beth believe in Frank only to have him dump her is far more powerful.
Remarkably, only now does Richard meet Julia, who’s a fan because she saw his daring new play at the Provincetown Playhouse. F&S were smart to have them have an even longer history.
At this point, Richard still has enough integrity to turn down P.J.’s offer to write a play for Althea that he’d produce. What’s more believable is that the avid Frank and reluctant Charley instead take the job to do MUSICAL HUSBANDS; Frank sees dollar signs, and Charley sees it as a stepping stone for what he really wants to write.
K&H ended with a graduation scene, which F&S not only appropriated in 1981, but used it twice, to open and close the musical. Many have missed that scene in subsequent productions, but here’s betting that they’d be substantially more upset if F&S had slavishly musicalized a scene-for-scene, character-for-character adaptation. Those who have always found the musical problematic would be much more appreciative of if they took the time to read K&H’s much more problematic play.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.