No one can vocalize the hard-to-articulate feelings of being caught in the throes of time and aging and change like composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The mix of “excited and scared,” of “sorry-grateful,” of loving and fighting with “old friends”: Sondheim’s storied career, from Sweeney Todd to Company , is about contradiction without contrivance.
So is Greta Gerwig’s. In her work, writing and acting and directing—Frances Ha, Mistress America and Lady Bird —she too has an ineffable ability to capture the various gradations of hope and disappointment, joy and fear. The thrill of “being alive.” It only makes sense, then, that in Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, Sondheim would be her secret weapon.
For Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), things aren’t changing fast enough: She’s stuck in Sacramento at a school she doesn’t like, in a town that exhausts her, in a world that isn’t exciting enough. She loves her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), but she’s envious of the life the cool girl Jenna (Odeya Rush) has. “The only exciting thing about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome,” she says, feelings of stagnation catalyzing frustration in her. As she tells her mother, Marian (Laurie Metcalf), “I want to live through something.” And then she jumps out of a car.
The bracing irony and humor (and horror) of that scene is watching Lady Bird literally try to change the speed and direction she’s going. At every turn, from her failed ability to secure one of the lead roles in the school musical to her applications to universities in New York behind her mother’s back, she attempts to grasp a certain amount of control over her life, even if her actions are not actually motivated by being responsible. The arguments that define her tempestuous relationship with her mother are rooted in control: who has it, when and what will be its ultimate impact on Lady Bird’s life. She throws herself against the wind—a funny literalization of her resistance towards the words “Merrily We Roll Along,” sung over and over again in Sondheim’s musical of the same name, and the musical that her high school decides to put on.
Sondheim’s musical maudit Merrily We Roll Along, with a book by George Furth, is legendary in its cult appeal, a show which closed after 16 performances on Broadway in 1981, was the last collaboration between Sondheim and director Hal Prince (until Bounce in 2003), featured kids playing jaded middle-aged cynics and was ravaged, perhaps somewhat cruelly, by critics at the time. The story of three friends—Charley, a playwright; Frank, a composer turned movie producer; and Mary, a novelist turned movie critic turned alcoholic—and the broken paths down which life takes them, Merrily, loosely based on George S. Kauffman and Moss Hart’s play of the same name, tells its tale in reverse. It begins at the end, when their friendship is fractured beyond repair, then traveling backward to when these people had dreams and ideals that had not yet been shattered. The severely flawed show is revived frequently, with an Off-Broadway production at the Roundabout Theatre currently, because the material is so rich, the score so complex, the emotions so deeply detailed—and because it is a challenge. It’s a problem everyone wants to solve. Maybe Gerwig has done just that, and accidentally? (The high of the school’s Merrily performance is counterbalanced by Father Leviatch’s [Stephen McKinley Henderson] despondent post-show declaration, “They didn’t understand it.”)
Is it possible for someone to have done the best version of Merrily without actually doing Merrily? You don’t need to see Lady Bird, or Julie, or her parents, or the boys she dates—closeted Danny (Lucas Hedges) or fuccboi Kyle (Timothée Chalamet)—become alcoholics or greedy monsters or self-righteous cynics in order to understand, deeply, how fragile people and their desires are. It’s evident in the precision in Gerwig’s script and direction, her attention to detail even going down to the kinds of songs her characters sing. When auditioning for the school musical, Lady Bird, in a dark turtleneck sweater, belts “Everybody Says Don’t” from another Sondheim musical, Anyone Can Whistle. She dances on stage briefly, arms all akimbo, her song both an earnest expression of her small town claustrophobia and a projection of the kind of character she wishes she were. Danny bursts with joy on stage, looking into the bright lights as he sings “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods—as he, too, knows there’s little for him left in Sacramento. Like Sondheim, Gerwig colors these ambitions and desires with contradiction, with both hope and doubt. What happens if Lady Bird does get out of Sacramento? How has it, and how will it, shape her life? Will anyone of these kids see each other again? Can you imagine what the conversation will sound like, years from now? (“Hey, old friend, are you OK, old friend? Whatd’ya say, old friend? Are we or are we unique?”)
At the same time, however much Lady Bird wants things to change, and wants to change, she also wants nothing to change. “Why don’t you turn around and go back?” could play in her head, as her ties with Julie begin to break. In Merrily, Frank reflects on his untethered friendships, wondering, “Why is it that old friends don’t want old friends to change?” And in a scene towards the end of Lady Bird, she must realize how much she’s changed, as Julie loses faith in her, switching out of her math class with no reason to stay behind to comfort Lady Bird’s mediocre skills. The dissonance in personal growth and maturation is of fascination to Gerwig, who, with Noah Baumbach, also chronicled these uncomfortable, but necessary evolutions in Frances Ha and Mistress America. In the latter, Tracy’s (Lola Kirke) argument with her friend, and crush, Tony (Matthew Shear), culminates in him yelling, “You used to be so nice!” She bitterly retorts, “I’m the same! I’m the same, just in another direction!”
Gerwig’s trilogy follows a similar trajectory as Merrily (the “other direction”), even if the characters are “different”: Frances (Gerwig) isn’t the famous dancer she thought she would be, and her relationship with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) looks as if it’s beginning to atrophy; Tracy’s admiration for Brooke (Gerwig) is also fueled by jealousy and desperation for connection; and Lady Bird’s idealism for a world she’s never lived in is what drives her. Though Gerwig caps the weariness of her “end as beginning” in a character in her late-20s, the same Sondheimian ambivalence permeates the film’s tone, as well as Frances’s own perspective regarding her life (she slumps into a dorm bed when she’s an RA at her alma mater later into the film). What Sondheim songs would Frances sing? “Not a Day Goes By,” to express the tremendous loss she feels at the broken relationship she has both with her art and with her best friend? Would Tracy sing “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George to articulate her desire for intimacy and authorship? What else would Lady Bird sing? Maybe “I Know Things Now” from Into the Woods, a song fundamentally about naïveté.
Cheap sentimentality nor unnecessary cynicism can never corrupt Lady Bird’s sweetness—but it does have a bittersweetly clear-eyed quality about it, uncertainty coexisting with anticipation. “Something is stirring, shifting ground, it’s just begun. Edges are blurring, all around, and yesterday is done,” sings Frank at the end of the musical, at the beginning of his life. “Our Time” is striking in its beauty and melancholy because you’ve already seen how the trio is tossed about and torn apart, and yet that heartbreaking knowledge doesn’t dampen the possibility that their dreams could come true, that they could change time. If one reads Gerwig’s films as a kind of Merrily reverse chronology—the disappointment of Frances Ha, the desperation of Mistress America and the idealism of Lady Bird—then we’ve already seen the Gerwiggian archetype experience the same kind of pain, frustration and dismay. Which doesn’t change the excitement and expectation that Lady Bird could change time, too. It’s her turn, her dreams ready to come true.
Fiasco’s production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along is currently at the Roundabout Theatre Company and runs through April 7.