That’s How We Roll
"Adventurous theater in Astoria"

-- The New York Times

That’s How We Roll

In this week’s blog post, actor Matt Welsh gives some insight into the preparation of an actor for a show such as Merrily We Roll Along, the forces at play in some of his choices, and the hilarious and touching influences on his life as an artist. 

Matt Welsh Headshot

I’m not going to bore anyone with a long story of what made me initially fall in love with the music of Stephen Sondheim. The short version takes place in the mid-80s, involves my oldest sister, Dawn, the volume on her stereo, and an LP of The Broadway Album by Barbra Streisand. What I would later call, “My gateway drug.”

Merrily We Roll Along is the fifth Sondheim show in which I have been fortunate enough to be cast. I can only explain the wide emotional spectrum working on this type of material brings, and offer whatever advice I’m able, by blatantly stealing quotes from other people and taking them wildly out of context.

“(It’s) not for sissies.” Bette Davis was talking about getting older, but it’s extraordinarily apt for sitting down with your script and pouring over the words, (and words, and words), that make up these stories. It’s a wrestling match of sorts and it’s going to take all your focus and stamina to beat the score into submission. All the while making it look effortless. Add on the extra layer in Merrily of the action going in reverse and you might get pinned under the weight of it all. Sure, it’s called a “play,” but it’s hard work. If, as an actor, you don’t love it, may I interest you in the wonderful world of accounting?

“Take your bottom lip and pull it over your head.” This is how Carol Burnett famously described the pain of childbirth. Oddly enough, it can also be a great warm-up for your face muscles when you’re attempting one of those tricky Sondheim patter songs. Incidentally, Nicholas Park does the patter honors in our production, and his “Franklin Shepherd, Inc.” is a joy to behold.

“Dear Lord, please change the laws of the universe for my convenience.” An old Emo Phillips joke he would use to segue into his closing material. It puts me in mind, though, of the art of collaboration. For instance, there is a huge section in Act II called “The Blob.” It’s a high class party scene and most everyone in the cast is involved. It took us roughly a week to stage. The role I play in Act I, Jerome, doesn’t logically fit in to this scene, so Dev, our fearless director, allowed me to play with a Truman Capote-type character. I’m short, I’m fuller in the middle, he would be at a party like this, it fits. Then I went in for a costume fitting and our costumer mentioned, “I was wondering if you might consider playing a beatnik instead. I found this gorgeous vintage sweater and I’d love to use it in this show.” I replied, “I just changed my character.” Immediately I started forming an idea of a beat poet who has several books published, which everybody hates but agrees are important, because culture. I played with a stance not unlike Billy Crystal’s impersonation of Sammy Davis, Jr. All of this came from the awesome suggestion of the costumer, Jen. And if Dev says that it isn’t working, I’ll happily go back to the Capote idea. Or a new idea. I just like being in an environment where ideas can be offered by anyone and will be judged on their merit. Also working with material that is at once general enough to allow play like this, but specific enough that the story still works is an amazing gift, and I’d be a fool not to take advantage.

“(You ran) the gamut of human emotions from A to B.” This gibe, attributed to Dorothy Parker in reference to Katharine Hepburn, is more of a warning. Think of a Sondheim song like The Chicken Joke. “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.” You could tell it like that and get some laughs. But imagine it like this. “Why did the chicken cross the road? Because she was living in a poultry farm where the conditions were awful, cages stacked on top of each other, no room to move around. Then one day, as a her eggs were being collected, she used the super-chicken leg strength she gained after having been injected with all those steroids to ironically kick the farmer in his face, knocking him out cold and letting her escape. Eventually, she made it across the road to the free-range chicken farm where she lived out her days.” A more thorough story will enrich the joke, (subjectively), just as it will a Sondheim song, taking it from an “A to B” to an “A to Z.” Bonus lesson, musical theatre fans can be catty. Give them no reason to be.

My worry after looking over what I wrote is that anyone reading this that is unfamiliar with the show may think to themselves, “I don’t like logic puzzles, so maybe this show isn’t for me.” Oh, goodness, don’t think that! And don’t deny yourself treats like Ally Bonino’s hilarious and tragic Mary Flynn, the above mentioned brilliance of Nicholas Park as Charles Kringas, and Jack Mosbacher’s Frank Shepard who you root for, even as you see him make all the wrong decisions. They do the heavy lifting, and it’s glorious. This is the type of show the mid-80s version of me would have been proud to know he’d eventually get to be part of.

One Comment

  1. Ranje
    Jun 11, 2015

    I saw LFY many years ago in Toronto and the one thing I remember was the scene where both chcraaters were in the same time frame and I thought how it would have been possibly more engaging if you saw them interacting together more than just that one moment in their lives (but of course that would go against the gimmick of the show).Jason Robert Brown was in Vancouver a few years ago performing his songs in a solo concert at Pacific Theatre right across the street from your Mom’s new condo! Unfortunately it was completely sold out and I missed it

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