In an epic and unprecedented project, auteur director Richard Linklater will direct a film adaptation of “Merrily We Roll Along,” the cult 1981 Sondheim musical fashioned from the 1934 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart Broadway play.
The production, which will begin next year, will take 20 years to shoot, so the actors can age with their characters. You see, the story in “Merrily We Roll Along” is told backwards, with the audience meeting the characters as jaded middle-aged adults, and then watching how they got where they are, until they are seen as idealistic young students preparing to go out into the world. Linklater is probably correct that this is the only way to film such a plot credibly, and he is a bold and courageous artist to commit to an artistic endeavor requiring such a long time commitment, extreme expense, and uncertainty.
He’s also deluded and irresponsible. The project will cost many millions of dollars, and tie up not only his talents but many others to varying degrees over 20 years. The film is quite likely never to be completed, and if it is, likely not to be any good. Even if it is good, it will have no market, and is guaranteed to lose money.
Artists have ambitious, bold crazy ideas all the time. I’ve had more than my share as a producer and stage director, and have been very fortunate that in the majority of them I was right (or lucky) and the skeptics were wrong. I even pushed one project that was a good bet to wreck my struggling professional theater company if it failed, and the odds were that fail it would. Moral luck saved me: the show was a huge box office success and an artistic success as well, but I have come to understand that undertaking the production at such risk was completely irresponsible. My board of directors should have said “no”, and Linklater’s producers and studio should have said no to him.
Sometimes, the ethical obligation is to tell artists “No.” This is one of those times.
Let’s begin with logistics. Linklater is 59; to complete the film, he will have to remain in good health, not to mention alive, until he is 79, as well as to maintain his energy and skills. How many film directors have turned in a successful movie at that age? Let’s see: John Ford died at 79, and hadn’t made a film in seven years. Alfred Hitchcock died at 80, and his last film had wrapped four years earlier. Eliza Kazan lived to 94, but he shot his final film at 67. Cecil B. De Mille lived until he was 77; he had a stroke on the set of his final epic (“The Ten Commandments”) three years earlier. Maybe there has been a major Hollywood director who was still active and doing good work at 79, but my research hasn’t turned up one. It doesn’t matter: the point is, the odds are against Linklater.
They are also stacked against the rest of the artists involved. Who can predict what will befall these people over 20 years? Illnesses, addictions, emotional problems, artistic disputes, loss of interest, passion or ability: who knows? Most actors do not have 20 year careers at a high level. The whole reason for Linklater’s crazy scheme is to ensure believable continuity as the story runs in reverse, and yet the sheer time involved makes it likely that continuity will be impossible.
Then there is the problem of the sunk costs distortion. In the original Broadway production of the musical, director Hal Prince (who died last moth) famously decided on the road to Broadway that his concept didn’t work, and he overhauled the entire production. You can’t do that when you have committed 20 years to a project. If Linklater decides after a decade that the whole thing just doesn’t work, he can’t stop, and if he’s like most human beings, his bias toward what he had invested so much in will prevent his realizing that the plug should be pulled. There is no way out of this crazy plan. Constructing a project with no options once it begins is itself irresponsible.
Now comes the real reason the project is reckless: the show doesn’t work. We know it doesn’t work, because it has never worked, and people keep trying to fix it, to no avail. The original play was a flop, and Kaufman and Hart had very few of those. It has never been revived on Broadway, and probably won’t be. The musical “Merrily…,” produced at the peak of Stephen Sondheim’s creative powers, was the biggest flop of Sondheim’s career up to that point, a consensus train wreck.
There have been many revivals of the musical, because Sondheim is such a cult musical theater artist that his acolytes refuse to believe that he could fail. Two versions have appeared in London’s West End and two more Off Broadway, as well as many regional productions. They haven’t succeeded either, except with Sondheim cultists. “ “On the evidence of its umpteenth unsatisfactory revival,” one critic wrote this year for the Times, “I’m sorry to say that it’s still not ‘Merrily’’s time. Maybe it never will be.”
Well of course. The Kaufman and Hart play was a gutsy experiment, but the fatal problem was baked into the concept: you can’t have suspense when the story runs backwards, and a tale of how miserable people got the way they are is not the stuff of comedy, musical or otherwise. Linklater is quite clearly a Sondheim junkie, telling the Times, “I first saw, and fell in love with ‘Merrily’ in the ’80s, and I can’t think of a better place to spend the next 20 years than in the world of a Sondheim musical…I don’t enter this multiyear experience lightly, but it seems the best, perhaps the only way, to do this story justice on film.”
The play was a flop; the musical was a flop. Why does such a work require “justice” on film? If it does the work justice, the film will also be a flop.
No, Richard. NO.
Add to all this the fact that Linklater has no experience directing musicals on stage or screen, unless you count “School of Rock,” which I don’t. The film musical is either a dying genre or a dead one, depending on one’s level of optimism. (It’s dead.) Moreover, Sondheim musicals—the good ones, the ones that didn’t lose a fortune, already have an ominous record on screen. “Company,” (there was a movie of a staged reading) “Follies,” “Assassins” and “Passion,” have never been filmed at all; “Sweeney Todd” was butchered by Tim Burton. Disney’s version of “Into the Woods” was a success, but the film of “A Little Night Music” was a legendary botch (Elizabeth Taylor sings!)
One can make Sondheim’s film record look better by including the shows he just wrote lyrics for (“West Side Story” and “Gypsy”) as well as the un-Sondheim-like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” but all three were made in the Sixties, when movie musicals were still breathing, and Hollywood hadn’t forgotten how to make them.
A film of “Merrily We Roll Along” would be a quixotic enterprise if it were being filmed on a normal schedule. Taking 20 years to do it is like the captain of the “Titanic” saying, “Let’s see just how unsinkable this baby really is. I have faith in her! Full speed ahead for that ice berg! What do you say, Mr. Ismay?”