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Backward Thinking

Sondheim Musical Challenges Performers

Merrily We Roll Along, running November 10-16 at the Allen Bales Theatre, is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most experimental musicals. The story of a composer and lyricist and their rise to prominence, Merrily We Roll Along is a show where time runs backward, beginning when the characters were in their 50s, traveling back through important events in their lives. This unique premise creates a challenge to actors, who must convincingly age in reverse onstage. Daniel Hulsizer, a junior from Florence majoring in musical theatre, explains the play as a story of idealism and hope told in reverse.

“The audience is going to be left with a feeling of hope and choice,” Hulsizer said.

He describes the process of aging backward as one driven primarily by movement and the Chekhovian technique employed by Matt Davis, the show’s director. This technique, as explained by Hulsizer, involves being attentive to the different way that the movements of a person in his 20s would differ from someone in is 50s, and practicing those differences. These types of changes are created through being conscious of not only the body but also changes in timbre and resonance over a long period of time, instead of relying on old age makeup.

“You’ve got to think of what you’ve been through, what your voice would be at that age, and how you carry your body.” Hulsizer said.

During the rehearsal period, the director had the actors run the show in reverse so they could get a feel for what the age transitions for their characters would feel like chronologically, moving from 1957 to 1976, rather than the order the show will be performed in. Hulsizer identifies this rehearsal reversal as the moment when the feel for how his character would age finally clicked into place.

The final scene in the show, when the characters are at their youngest, centers on a rooftop meeting of the main characters where they are able to view the launching of Sputnik. Hulsizer elaborates on the poignancy of the idealism of the space race and the idealism of the main characters.

“Furth and Sondheim are geniuses, because they’ve used the idea of Sputnik, because we’re looking up at space, but it’s almost metaphorical,” Hulsizer said. “When you sit outside and just look up at the galaxy it’s wonder, it’s endlessness.”

Stephen Sondheim’s work is famous for its complexities and music that is both vocally and mentally demanding. When asked about these challenges, Hulsizer said it could be trying as an actor.

“No lyric is ever the same, it’s like you have to memorize an entire encyclopedia,” he said.