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Amy Danielson

After seeing the Guthrie Lab’s production of Merrily We Roll Along, I was reminded of a passage in The Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Salinger’s caviling antihero, Holden Caulfield, wanders into a bar. The bar’s old piano player used to be someone worth listening to, but on this particular night he is noodling around on the keyboard, absent-mindedly popping out medleys of his previous works. According to Caulfield, he was really “stinking it up.” After the set, Caulfield is further disgusted by the audience’s response-they are jubilant, revealing their lack of sophistication.

This air of feigned sophistication is often seen at mediocre theater in the Twin Cities. And this phenomenon is most pronounced at Twin Cities musical theater. Last year, the Ordway’s Adventures in Love sent anyone with any refinement running with revulsion. Yet, this show elicited a standing ovation. I am still amazed that any audience might believed the show, which was humorless and saccharine, warranted this kind of praise. Thankfully, I haven’t seen anything nearly as terrible since then. However, Merrily We Roll Along comes dangerously close.

Stephen Sondheim, the famous composer-lyricist of such musicals as West Side Story and A Little Night Music, is at his worst in Merrily We Roll Along. Audiences throughout the world have hailed him as the premier musical dramatist of his time, but why? The work demonstrated here is among the least innovative or creative of anything that I’ve ever heardñevery song in Merrily We Roll Along sounds unerringly like the one that preceded it.

The story centers on an influential songwriter and film producer, Franklin Shepard (Ken Barnett). The play then scrolls back in time to uncover his path to success. But is he really successful in the end? After all, he has deserted his friends and the passion of his youth for the world of commercial film producing. Straight out of college, Frank was an aspiring young musician. One night, on the rooftop of his apartment building, peering through binoculars for the first-ever pass of Sputnik over the earth, he announces to Charlie, his long-time friend, and Mary, new frien, that “this is our time.” But it isn’t their time, it is ours, all three lost hours of it.

Merrily We Roll Along failed on Broadway in 1981. So, why did the Guthrie Lab think it would succeed this time? Perhaps because there is a receptive audience here. This is, after all, a city of undeserved standing ovations.

 

Merrily We Roll Along plays through November 18 at the Guthrie Lab, (612) 377-2224.