Laura Lippman | Longreads | November 2019 | 17 minutes (4,147 words)
I am firmly in the camp that believes we need new interests and new goals as we age. At 60, I have taken up tennis and am dutifully working my way through Duolingo’s basic Italian lessons. Recently, a friend and I decided to pursue Stephen Sondheim completist status, attending productions of every musical for which he has written music and/or lyrics. Alas, our crowded calendars keep us from being as nimble as we need to be. Passion in the Philippines would have been amazing, but we couldn’t even make it to The Frogs in suburban Detroit. Clearly, we’re going to be at this for a while.
But this past spring, we managed to bag a New York production of Merrily We Roll Along, a Sondheim work that has been vexing dramaturges since its original 1981 Broadway run of only 16 performances. Based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it moves backward in time, centering on a three-way friendship that has fractured beyond repair. Mary, who always had a thing for Frank, has become a bitter alcoholic. Frank has ignored the work he does best, composing, in order to become a mogul, at which he is mediocre. Frank and Charley no longer speak at all. Because the story moves from their crabby old age (40-something!) to their more hopeful 20s, we see the fallout before we hear the bomb. The suspense is not fueled by whether Frank and Charley will patch things up, but the origin of the feud. Who did what to whom?
That reveal comes quickly, one advantage of a backwards-moving story. The fifth or sixth song, depending on the production you see — people are forever tinkering with Merrily — is a bravura rant. Charley breaks down on a live television show while discussing his writing partnership with Frank. Which comes first, Charley is asked, the words or the music. The contract, he replies, then launches into “Franklin Shepard Inc.,” a laundry list of his friend’s shortcomings.
The song builds, his rage builds. But just as Charley appears on the verge of one of those musical theater transitions that was mocked in Spamalot’s “The Song that Goes Like This,” he stops himself and begins to speak-sing softly. He misses Frank. He wants him back.
His argument is contradictory. He compares friendship to a garden that has to be tended, then, shades of Elizabeth Bishop, says “Friendship’s something you don’t really lose.” The tempo begins to build. He’s out of control and he knows it. Very sneaky how it happens . . . Oh my god, I think it’s happened. Stop me quick before I sink. He ends with a few vicious, well-chosen words about Frank’s obsession with money. The friendship is irrevocably broken. It’s unclear what can’t be forgiven — the stinging words or the public airing of the grievance.
Absent this kind of betrayal or falling-out, most friendships don’t end so definitively. These no-ending endings can be hard to process. Our culture long ago made peace with the fragility of matrimony, but we still have high expectations for friendships. If you really care about someone, you should be able to pick up where you left off, no matter how long it’s been. Friendship’s something you don’t really lose, right?
Hold my beer, Charley. It’s Frank’s turn to sing.