A hum-um-um-um-um-um-ummable Merrily
It was, in a word, stupendous. And unsurprisingly so. I’m part of that peculiar subset of theatre fans left cold by the majority of musicals – classics or otherwise – but who consistently and contrarily go berserk for Sondheim.
I don’t know why it is. Actually, scratch that. I do. It’s the humanity, the wit, the dexterity, the warmth, the imagination. Above all, it’s the intoxicating sense of joy in the English language; the Shakespearean determination to master our fiendishly duplicitous lexicon; to achieve a lyrical perfection that demonstrates how, just as mathematics is tailor-made to describe the universal laws of physics, English is a heaven-sent tool for articulating human emotions. All that, of course, and the bloody amazing music.
None of which will come as a surprise to fellow Sondheimians – and all of which, no doubt, will shock and appal those who’ve never understood him.
Because this is the really weird thing about Sondheim. It’s not that he divides opinion so fiercely. It’s that the very things which his admirers proclaim as his greatest strengths are also those whose absence or, indeed, existence, are deplored by his detractors.
So while I celebrate the wit, others find Sondheim too clever for his own good. And while I find no end of empathetic warmth in his characters, others come over almost frostbitten by the clinical detachment.
I mention it because Merrily is a musical which brings these issues sharply into focus. Telling the backwards tale of an idealistic show-writing trio trying to make it big on Broadway, the show offers a meta-commentary on Sondheim’s own experiences and reputation.
It comes to the surface in the climactic number ‘Opening Doors‘, which chronicles the characters’ earliest attempts at collaboration. At one point, their producer-to-be (played originally by a young Jason Alexander, captured on film in the clip below) criticises their big song. Why? Because, in his words, ‘There’s not a tune you can hum.’
You don’t have to be a Sondheim expert to see that this is the composer getting revenge on his critics. But the real genius of Merrily’s retribution isn’t in the cheap (albeit hilarious) shots like the one above; it’s in the fact that the score is arguably the composer’s own most memorable and, indeed, ‘hummable’ achievement.
After last Friday night, I feel surer of this than ever. Not because the musical performances were exceptional (though they were), but because I found myself sitting beside a couple who sang, stamped their feet and conducted their way through every number.
It was, of course, unbelievably annoying. But it was also weirdly invigorating. For a fleeting couple of hours, Sondheim could hardly have felt more accessible or, for that matter, more commercial. It was like the whole world loved him.
Better still, it filled me with hope that one day they really might.