Merrily, Staples Players Roll Along

Justin Paul was a Broadway composer. Collaborating with his best friend, he was hailed for his talent and creativity.

Over the years though, Justin made choices that took him away from his dream of writing songs that made a difference. He let his friends down, sold out, and became just another Hollywood producer.

That’s a true story. Fortunately, the only connection Justin Paul has with it is that the composer is a character he once played.

As a high school senior in 2003, Justin was Frank in Staples Players’ production of “Merrily We Roll Along.” It was a great, complex role, for a talented actor.

For the 2003 production of “Merrily We Roll Along,” Justin Paul (left) and Trey Skinner posed for this photo. It was projected on the Staples stage between scenes, showing changes in characters’ lives. Amazingly, the Music Box Theatre is once again part of Justin Paul’s life: It’s the home of his blockbuster show, “Dear Evan Hansen.”

But Justin was even more talented as a songwriter. At the University of Michigan, he met another very passionate theater major. He and Benj Pasek bonded over their shared love for — you can’t make this stuff up — “Merrily.”

Fast forward more than a decade. Pasek and Paul are now the hottest songwriting team in Hollywood (“The Greatest Showman,” “La La Land”) and on Broadway (“Dear Evan Hansen”).

In fact, the first chapter in a new coffee table book about “Evan Hansen” details that first-year Sondheim experience in Ann Arbor.

Now fast forward even more. Staples Players directors David Roth and Kerry Long are reprising “Merrily We Roll Along.”

And once again, Justin Paul plays a key role.

No, he’s not onstage. But last Friday he visited with the cast and crew. He sat in on rehearsal. And when the curtain goes up later this month, he’ll be in the audience.

Charlie Zuckerman, Avery Mendillo and Nick Rossi perform “Old Friends” in “Merrily We Roll Along.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

“Merrily” is an intriguing show. The story is told backwards. It begins as Frank looks back regretfully on the choices he made. Each subsequent scene takes place several years before the previous one. Each reveals the process behind those choices.

The cast began rehearsing the show in the opposite direction — going forward. “It’s really important for the kids to understand the changes their characters go through, over 20 years,” Roth explains. “That way they can get a grasp on the aging process.”

He notes that the original Broadway cast was all between 17 and 20 years old. That’s close to the age of his Staples students.

“It’s poignant that our kids are at a point in their lives when they still have dreams — and can actually accomplish them,” Roth says.

Avery Mendillo, Nick Rossi, Charlie Zuckerman and the “Merrily We Roll Along” ensemble. (Photo/Kerry Long)

‘Merrily We Roll Along” is, he adds, “a cautionary tale. The message is: Keep an eye on your dreams. That’s what Kerry and I feel is so awesome about the play. It makes you realize you can lose your dreams. But you don’t have to.”

The 2003 production — with Justin Paul — was powerful. Several theatergoers told Roth that the show had made them take a serious look at their own lives. “The power of theater is really amazing,” he notes.

So is the power of Staples Players.

(“Merrily We Roll Along” will be performed on Friday and Saturday, March 16, 17, 23 and 24 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, March 18 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students and $10 for seniors (matinee only). For tickets and more information, click here.)

2 responses to “Merrily, Staples Players Roll Along

  1. For all the reasons you note Dan, Merrily is among my favorite musicals: the retrospective and cautionary look at how life can unfold before we know it — a microcosm of what may happen in adulthood — with a deep dive into how and why youthful dreams and friendships are sometimes lost, or at least tempered, by unanticipated opportunities, choices / decisions made, social settings and norms, bad breaks and one’s character. The musical achieves this through the rich depiction of Frank Shepard and of those surrounding him as they go back in time in one-to-five year clips over a score of years. It’s interesting to observe this evolution in reverse order.

    Merrily We Roll Along makes us ponder the grey areas of such themes and questions as:
    – As one navigates the adult years, what remains important and what falls by the wayside?
    – To what extent have our wants, needs, interests, values, behaviors and situations changed and what impact has this had?
    – There can be a price paid, sometimes, to give up on dreams but sometimes even to hold onto them.
    – What keeps relationships together and what breaks them apart?
    – Sometimes unique challenges occur at the intersection of personal and professional lives.
    – Does fulfillment materialize as one expected?
    – How do people get to where they are in life, was anything given up to get there and was it worth it?

    While we don’t get to live our lives again, there might be opportunities along the way for do-overs, and that’s exactly what happened to Prince and Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along production; in 1981, its initial run lasted only 16 performances, fraught with structural issues that have since been corrected, to become the fantastic musical it is. “Good Thing Going”, “Not a Day Goes By” and “Our Time”, all from the original production, are among its great songs to which others, such as “Growing Up” and “The Blob,” were added.

    It’s a wonderful period piece as well, capturing parts of U.S. life from the 70s, 60s and 50s, through costumes, set design, dialogue and song.

    What’s particularly impressive about this Staples Players’ production is the extra effort put forth by the directors, cast, pit and tech crews. They’ve faced inordinate schedule disruptions due to factors beyond their control including being unable to hold 40% of the planned rehearsals the past couple of weeks. They’ve worked on their own, and together, late into nights and over weekends due to the disruptions; for this reason, a huge applause is deserved before the curtain even rises.

    May everyone, especially those contributing to Staples High School’s productions, avoid the disappointments and mistakes and have better fortune than of the characters being portrayed; a stronger dose of empathy, compassion and good karma too. I hope everyone gets to see this production and gets something out of this entertaining and thoughtful musical that Staples Players has worked very hard to prepare.

  2. Joyce Barnhart

    Recently Justin Paul and Kelly O’Hara have been in the news of Westport. I wonder what it would be like if these two talented musicians met.