See This! Valuable Actor Perspectives on Rare Sondheim Musical, Merrily We Roll Along

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I don’t think there was a time in my life when I didn’t know what Merrily We Roll Along was, unlike most people. Not a Day Goes By when we don’t listen to, hum, or sing all or part of the soundtrack.

See This! Valuable Actor Perspectives on Rare Sondheim Musical, Merrily We Roll Along

For years, we have been looking for a production of this rare Sondheim musical. It was only on Broadway for two weeks, some claiming its “failure” to the pure essence of real life that it holds. Merrily is an easy musical to love, as it can relate to most peoples' lives at some point, going through the motions of struggle and success.

We were ecstatic when we heard about a two day revival here in Michigan! FINALLY! Cancel the tickets to New York (it’s currently in revival at Roundabout’s Fiasco Theatre), we needed to see this production! If you are like this, too (who isn’t?!), Runyonland Productions is putting it on in Ann Arbor Feb 28-March 1, 2019.

And better yet, we were given the chance to interview the lovely stars of the fantastic show. Color me impressed. 

Here, in their own words, are the actors in the three main roles, on working in the musical, Sondheim, and more. You’ll be impressed, as well.

Erica Ito - Mary

Erica Ito is a current sophomore at the University of Michigan studying Musical Theatre and English. Born and raised in Kailua, Hawaii, she most recently performed at Bucks County Playhouse in 42ND STREET, directed by Hunter Foster.

Erica Ito. From See This! Valuable Actor Perspectives on Rare Sondheim Musical, Merrily We Roll Along

How does it feel to be in such a rare musical?
Being in a musical that's rarely produced gives you a chance to be even more present and invested in the work. Sometimes when you're in a production, you rush to get through rehearsals to the best of your ability, with the idea that this is a role you may have played before or may play again. But when you're doing a "rare" musical, you feel as though you've only got one shot at telling this story, so you gotta make it count.

Was Merrily in your life before this show, and if so, how did it affect you?
When I was a senior in high school, my best friend and I were obsessed with Merrily so we decided to do our own production. We played Frank and Mary in addition to directing, musical directing, costume-designing, gathering props, etc. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done, putting on a show alone with zero budget while applying to colleges at the same time, but I learned a lot about creating theatre and about working with your closest friends. I believe Merrily is a cautionary tale about what happens when you choose "success" in the business over friendship with your collaborators. It was a true gift to tell that story while simultaneously growing closer with my friends through the struggle of putting on the show.

Vocally, is this a challenging musical? I know that Sondheim's works are often difficult and complicated. Will it be hard to put the score into practice, as well as with acting?
Sondheim musicals are almost challenging by definition. Many people refer to Sondheim as a musical dramatist as opposed to a "songwriter" because his songs are so story specific and character-driven. Presenting Merrily as a staged concert allows us to highlight Sondheim's brilliant musical storytelling. As actors, it pushes us to dive into all that juicy, musical specificity, to determine what each dissonant chord and every syncopation says about what our character is feeling in that particular moment.

What are you most looking forward to with this production?
I'm most looking forward to becoming "old friends" with Wilson (Charley) and Liam (Frank) and the rest of the cast! We're all friends here at school, but this show is going to require us to have a unique and powerful bond in order to convince the audience our characters have been best friends for longer than we've even been alive.

As a longtime Merrily fangirl, I'm also very excited to be meeting the original Mary Flynn, Ann Morrison. It's pretty scary to know you're going to be performing for the woman who literally created your role. I feel very lucky.

Wilson Plonk - Charley

Wilson Plonk is a current Junior at the University of Michigan Musical Theatre program hailing from Durham, NC. You may have seen him as the Emcee in MUSKET's Cabaret this past year, along with numerous other Department of Musical Theatre productions.

Wilson Plonk. From See This! Valuable Actor Perspectives on Rare Sondheim Musical, Merrily We Roll Along

How does it feel to be in such a rare musical?
I'm really taking this opportunity for what it is, as I don't know when I'll ever get the chance to play this role again. I also really feel a passion from the cast and creative team to do the show right. It deserves to be shown in its best light and we feel determined to put on a landmark production of the show, even if it's just for the audience members in Ann Arbor!

Was Merrily in your life before this show, and if so, how did it affect you?
Unlike many others working on this process, I had known Merrily, but nothing more than the basic knowledge of few of the most famous songs. When it was brought up to be produced by Runyonland, I looked into it far more closely and I just fell in love. The score is genius, the book is incredibly touching. It has an important message today, especially with the revolution of technology and the lack of connection I feel in modern society.

As a young person entering the industry, what parallels do you see between the show and your life? How does that make you feel, and where does Sondheim's and Furth's work most hit home for you?
This is going to be an incredibly interesting process for me as I share many things with my character. We both are lyricists/ book writers for original musicals. His passion for the idea of the art is something that I've taken to heart. It's interesting having that connection to Charley, as it really feels like the show is almost a cautionary tale for myself. I feel personally moved to express the hope and excitement for the future I feel for the future to the rest of the audience. I hope everyone can leave with a little bit more of a feeling of wonder at the world we live in and the excitement to make the best of it that you can.

With so few productions of Merrily as cultural reference, how are you preparing for your role? Did you feel more free, and less contained by  expectation, than might be true in a more popular musical?
It's interesting; I feel very free from the ideas of copying a famous portrayal, but Sondheim still lets you know what he wants from you in his writing. It's very much written in a way that directs you through the show. I'm excited to work with our brilliant director Megumi on how I can really bring myself to Charley and bring him to life for our audiences.

Vocally, is this a challenging musical? I know that Sondheim's works are often difficult and complicated. Will it be hard to put the score into practice, as well as with acting?
 Sondheim's rhythms in Merrily We Roll Along are known for being particularly difficult. My character has a huge patter song in Act 1 called "Franklin Shepard Inc." that is just devilishly complicated, both rhythmically and lyrically. It's going to be a giant undertaking for me, especially with a full orchestra on stage, but I can't wait to take it on. The wonderful thing about Sondheim is that the acting is all fueled through the music. With lyrics as brilliant as those in Merrily, acting becomes easy if you just pay attention to what you're saying.

What are you most looking forward to with this production?
I can't wait to be there opening night and to hear the orchestra play Merrily's masterful overture. It's such an iconic piece of music that will just really set up the incredible show. The creative team is just too good and this live will be just such a special experience.

Liam Allen - Frank

Liam is a senior Musical theatre major at the University of Michigan and is excited to be working on MERRILY during his final semester. Some of Liam's favorite roles have been Youth in PASSING STRANGE, Sebastian in THE LITTLE MERMAID, Judas in THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT, and Elder Thomas in THE WHALE. Liam enjoys writing music and poetry in his free time.

Liam Allen. From See This! Valuable Actor Perspectives on Rare Sondheim Musical, Merrily We Roll Along

How does it feel to be in such a rare musical? 
It feels really cool! There is so much beauty in this show and it's exhilerating to know that most audience members, especially here at a university, will be experiencing that beauty for the very first time during our production.

Was Merrily in your life before this show, and if so, how did it affect you?
Yes, actually. A very good friend of mine was studying it for a school project freshman year, which got the name on my mind; then another friend of mine sang "Good thing Going" sophomore year at a voice recital and I fell in love. I went home and started listening to the cast album on repeat while studying the story online and it became a summer obsession for me. I love Sondheim and something about the emotional truths in this particular story really resonated with me, I've been fond of it ever since.

As a young person entering the industry, what parallels do you see between the show and your life? How does that make you feel, and where does Sondheim's and Furth's work most hit home for you?    
Well, I'm looking to enter the industry initially as a performer, but my ultimate passion is to be a writer in the industry. That career is in many ways even more challenging and unlikely than acting; and I think this show captures the spirit of any Creative's attempt to both stay afloat and tell their own original stories in this crazy industry.

With so few productions of Merrily as cultural reference, how are you preparing for your role? Did you feel more free, and less contained by  expectation, than might be true in a more popular musical?
I certainly feel more free. I've studied many of the cast albums but I have little experience actually watching scenes from the show, so I feel my approach gets to be entirely original: Unadulteratsd by people's expectations, or even my own!

Vocally, is this a challenging musical? I know that Sondheim's works are often difficult and complicated. Will it hard to put the score into practice, as well as with acting?
Sondheim's music and lyrics can be very challenging, but I've done multiple Sondheim pieces before and never had a struggle I couldn't overcome. When it comes down to it, I feel whether or not a particular musical is challenging comes down to the individual performer's connection TO it, and not as much notes and rhythms: Some people may find a show difficult that I find easy, and vice versa, just because we are two completely different individuals with different skill sets. But that's just my personal opinion; I'm sure if we picked threads about it, one could argue MERRILY's score is objectively more challenging than another, but I really think the most important thing is how the show meshes with the performer's skillset.

What are you most looking forward to with this production?
Everything. I love this role, and I think it will challenge and excite me in all the ways I'd hoped for and more... Also depending on what direction we take, there's a chance my character will have to play the piano (!), which I've never done in a show before and would love to check off the bucket list. 

 

 

Tickets can be purchased at www.runyonland.ticketleap.com/merrily. Visit RunyonlandProds.com or call (704) 778-2144 for more information. See you there!

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Runyonland Productions

 

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