Why 'Merrily We Roll Along,' 'Memento' and others tell stories backward – Star Tribune
“The Sound of Music” famously insists “the very beginning” is “a very good place to start,” but “Merrily We Roll Along,” opening Saturday at Theater Latté Da, prefers to start at the very end.
The musical, which bombed on Broadway in 1981 but has earned acclaim in subsequent productions, is told backward. Three pals — a movie producer (played at Latté Da by Reese Britts), a songwriter (Dylan Frederick) and a novelist (Becca Hart) — are 40ish, bitter and at each other’s throat when the musical begins. But it proceeds in reverse chronology to their buoyant youth.
“Merrily” is based on George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s also-backward play of the same name, which means both get to end on a bright note instead of a bitter one.
The same could be said for many backward artworks. If it’s true that all endings are sad ones, since they inevitably lead to death, it’s also true it’s usually possible to find a happy spot to begin with. Intricately structured films “Memento” and “Irreversible,” Martin Amis’ Booker Prize-shortlisted novel “Time’s Arrow,” brand-new crime novel “Wrong Place Wrong Time,” a couple of songs on the Beatles’ “Revolver” and Harold Pinter’s acclaimed stage drama “Betrayal” all run backward, for a variety of reasons.
Why did the creators choose to tell their stories from back to front? What’s to be gained when Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” and others turn back time? Read on (left to right, please).
The story: Leonard (Guy Pearce) suffers from a disorder that makes it impossible to create short-term memories. But he knows his wife was raped and murdered and he’s determined to avenge her death. (The movie has two timelines — the backward one, in color, and a forward one that supplies missing details.)
Where it begins: A murder.
Where it ends: Leonard starts his investigation all over again.
Why backward: It puts the audience in a position similar to Leonard. Just as he can’t trust his memory of what just happened — using sticky notes and even tattoos to keep track — we don’t know what just happened. That’s because, in the reverse timeline, it hasn’t happened yet.
The story: A man in America lives in fear that his secret will be uncovered. Tracking him to several locations, we soon meet him as a doctor executing people at Auschwitz.
Where it begins: Decades after World War II, he has eluded capture but his crimes have shadowed his entire life.
Where it ends: Prior to the war, when he has done nothing wrong and the Holocaust hasn’t happened.
Why backward: It’s probably the only way to come up with a happy ending for a Holocaust story (instead of entering gas chambers to die, the people at Auschwitz emerge from them alive). But what’s ingenious about Amis’ trick is that it forces us to consider human complicity by returning us to a time when Hitler’s plan was not inevitable, when it was preventable.
The story: The relationship between a man and woman proceeds from her brutal sexual assault to the happier start of their relationship.
Where it begins: A fight in a Paris pub, where Pierre and Marcus are figuring out how to avenge the rape of their friend Alex.
Where it ends: Alex, who has had relationships with both Pierre and Marcus, gets the results of a pregnancy test and a title card tells us, “Time Destroys Everything.”
Why backward: It creates a sense of inevitability. Everyone in the movie feels doomed and, even in happier times, we’re shown how their decisions set them on that irreversible course.
‘Merrily We Roll Along’
The story: Over the course of decades, three friends weather success and failure while singing such glorious songs as “Old Friends” and the titular finale, which comes first.
Where it begins: Big-time movie producer Franklin is unhappy because he has abandoned two marriages as well as his best friends — former songwriting partner Charley and embittered novelist Mary.
Where it ends: The three meet at a party and sing about hopes for friendship and creative fulfillment.
What ‘backward’ gets it: It makes “Merrily” a cautionary tale about staying true to yourself. Book writer George Furth and Sondheim peel back the layers of three characters who regard themselves as failures and show how they got there, ending on a note that feels hopeful until you realize you’ve already seen those hopes dashed.
In his book “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim wrote that he responded to the structure that keeps presenting us with behavioral mysteries and then explaining them in the next scene. A lifetime fan of puzzles and games, Sondheim also enjoyed developing musical themes in reverse — with, for instance a reprise of torch song “Not a Day Goes By” actually coming before the “first” version. The show has been revised often and the songs given to different characters but, originally, the two “Days” charted the breakup of a once-happy couple. In reverse, of course.
‘Merrily We Roll Along’
Who: Based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Book by George Furth. Songs by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Peter Rothstein.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Oct. 30.
Where: 345 13th Av. NE., Mpls.
Protocol: Masks required only at Wed. and Sun. performances.
Tickets: $45-$71, 612-339-2003 or latteda.org.
Theater critic Chris Hewitt previously worked at the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, where he covered movies and then theater. Also, he occasionally gets to write book reviews.
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