When Artistic Boldness Is Unethical: The “Merrily We Roll Along” Movie

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?

No.

 

44 thoughts on “When Artistic Boldness Is Unethical: The “Merrily We Roll Along” Movie

  1. Have a few things to say about this, but I will some up two points rather quickly:

    1) this made me think of the documentary series 7 and Up, which I have not seen, but might still be ongoing.

    Jack: “you can’t have suspense when the story runs backwards,”

    “Memento”

    -Jut

    • The exception that proves the rule! Really, not even that: the idea in Memento is to solve a murder, not to show how people turned into dicks. The film assembles information like the protagonist’s shattered memories. If it was like MWRA, we’d see the murder and how it was done at the start.

      • I agree about Memento. I was going to put that it is the exception that proves the rule. That was too long. So, I was going to put “Two words:” but that was even twice as long as the movie title.

        So, I let it go at just the title, because it practically speaks for itself.

        It was exceptional for the very reasons you point out.

        -Jut

  2. I forgot another reason this is insane. There may not BE a film industry in 20 years. The movement to streaming and on-line productions is rapid and unpredictable. 20 years? Imagine where technology will be in 20 years. The problem is, you can’t. By then Dictator OAC will be ordering what we can see anyway.

  3. This is the sort of thing that might be done experimentally at a film school, after much rework (make it 15, 20 years tops; have a general script, but be prepared to change it by killing off characters or whatever; do not put anything past (low) 5 figures a year on it). High probability of failure, but at least you get the learning experiences with it.

    I would watch that, but then it wouldn’t be MWRA anymore, which I guess is my point.

  4. I liked Sweeney Todd… but I had never seen the musical, which might be a blessing. As a Film it was financially successful from what I see on Wikipedia, so it might not be the best example of a failed adaptation.

    On a side note, when you said musical film is dead, my first thought was that maybe it will come back to life, like a zombie. Then I started thinking of a Zombie Musical, which might be just the thing to bring musicals back into vogue… 🙂

      • All movie adaptations should be viewed as separate artistic entities from their sources. I don’t know how anyone can enjoy Sweeney Todd; casting Depp as Sweeney made as much sense as casting Groucho Marx as Rhett Butler, and that’s not even considering his “singing.”

        • The disconnect here is that I can see a universe where Groucho plays a very interesting Rhett.

          I agree, though, Depp’s singing is dire, as is most in that movie. It works as a crazy Burton spectacle, not a Sondheim piece.

          • Margaret Mitchell joked that she could see Groucho as Rhett.

            I am a Burton fan, but his obsession with Depp has hurt more than one movie, and, I’d argue, Depp. Sweeney Todd was one Sondheim musical that could have and should have been a magnificent movie.

            • Groucho playing a charismatic force of chaos who disrupts polite society from within? What’s not to love about *that* casting?

              Burton and Depp were both extremely talented artists who lacked strong editorial figures in their lives. I’m sure they fed off each other.

              Honestly I haven’t really watched the Todd movie since it came out, but listen to the original cast recording every couple months. Am not sure I could go back now.

  5. Jack: “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.”

    This statement made me think of that fictional encounter between Orson Welles and Ed Wood in “Ed Wood.” My memory is a bit foggy, but here was the gist: Welles talked about how Citizen Kane was the movie he had complete control over. He did not let producers tell him how he was going to do it. This inspired Ed Wood to tell off his producers, who wanted to fund a religious film or something, and he went on to make the movie he wanted to make (which he thought would make enough money to fund the movies his producers wanted). And, exactly juxtaposed to Welles, who made Citizen Kane, almost always regarded as the best film ever made, Ed Wood went on to make Plan 9 from Outer Space, widely regarded as the worst movie ever made.

    It also reminded me of the scene from The Agony and the Ecstasy where Michelangelo is supposed to paint the Sistine Chapel and they wanted the 12 apostles painted on the walls and he is done with part of it and he does not want to paint them so he ruins the work he had done, and screams, “You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell! He decides to paint what he wants and creates the Sistine Chapel.

    The artist has to be able to take risks, or refuse to do the work if they don’t want to do it. Yes, the project might fail, but that risk is inherent in any venture. Moral Luck should not be a consideration, as many artistic pieces are not appreciated at the time they are created. You take the risk and make the piece that you think needs to be made.

    (I could throw in some line from Kipling’s “If,” but this comment is getting a bit long.)

    -Jut

    • Boy, your mind runs in the same rivers as mine sometimes. That Ed Wood scene is one of the most profound in all of filmdom, brilliant in ways that I suspect artists find revealing and frightening. One man is a genius with visions that lesser human’s can’t see; the other is an idiot, but with the same passion, courage and determination. They are opposites, but also the same.

      • Yes, and even though it was fictional, it was a perfect piece of artistic license.

        It explains Wood, so you can sympathize with him. It also explains so many other Directors, George Lucas, Spielberg, Tarantino, Kubrick (I left out a lot of people), people struggling to tell a story the way they wanted to tell it.

        It was a wonderful scene. And, I think you agree that it is apt here. However, I personally don’t know this musical so, while I might generally give someone a chance to create their piece, this particular horse might be dead.

        But, on the topic of films that won’t work, I would really like to check out the Tristram Shandy movie from a decade ago. Heard it was a good try.

        -Jut

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