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May 14, 2015

Revival of Merrily We Roll Along at the Astoria Performing Arts Center

How do we get to be where we are? That’s the central question in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along, currently being revived at the Astoria Performing Arts Center. The story moves backward in time and follows the lives of three friends—Mary, a writer; Frank, a composer; and Charley, his lyricist. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg spoke to Ally Bonino, who plays Mary, about singing Sondheim, how to act a show backward, and both sympathizing with her character and wanting to shake her.

Culturadar: What draws you to Mary?

Ally Bonino: She’s relatable. Everyone has that love they can’t get over, that one person that got away. Except she doesn’t remove herself from the situation, so she just stays in that ‘one that got away-ness.’ She’s so human, and that’s really fun to play around with, the fact that she’s smart and funny and understands everything that’s going on around her.

CR: Mary starts the show in a very dark place and ends in a hopeful, exciting place. How do you play both these versions of Mary?

AB: Normally, in most shows that move chronologically, you have the ability to sink into that dark feeling and that emotional state. Having to just jump into that emotional point at the beginning is tricky but great, too. I try to start with her physicality—the pitch of her voice when she’s speaking and singing. It’s easier for me to travel backwards in time when it’s based on a physical point.

CR: How is it for you to move through a show backward?

AB: You can’t take anything with you from the scene before. It hasn’t happened yet. You go from this intense emotional highpoint—like when Charley has this huge breakdown there’s this huge blowup—and in the next scene everything’s fine. You have to completely shake off everything that’s happened in the scene before and not know that your friendship is completely falling apart. The transitions are maybe 45 seconds at most.

CR: Now that you're into the show’s run, what have you learned about Mary from playing her?

AB: I learned that audience members empathize with her far more than I thought. She can come across as a ‘nudge,’ as Frank calls her. But she’s got a lot of heart, and it was really lovely and surprising for me to find out that audiences are rooting for her this whole time even though they know how it ends.

CR: How do you feel about her trajectory and how she ends up at, in this case, the start of the show?

AB: I just want to shake her. She’s so smart and writes this bestseller but she doesn’t do anything more than that because she keeps hanging on to this idea of Frank and also to the idea of the friendship of her and Frank and Charley. She gets stuck. I just want to shake her out of it and say, ‘You can do so much better.’ She goes through a lot, but a lot of it is self-inflicted. There are a couple moments when she could have chosen to do something else. I find it fascinating when people choose to do something that they know will hurt them, but they choose to do it anyway.

CR: Sondheim is notoriously difficult to sing. What do you think is challenging about his music?

AB: The hardest part for me is that this show is extremely low vocally, but if you are having issues vocally you can just delve into the acting. The beautiful thing about his music is that he’s written such beautiful people. You get the opportunity to act through the song. Not to say that the music gets overlooked, but it’s a really beautiful coming together of acting and music.

CR: What song or moment in Merrily is the most challenging?

AB: “Now you know” is extremely difficult. I say a silent prayer before we go into that number. It’s fast. It’s wordy. The key sits right in my break and I have to push through it. It’s one of my favorite numbers, though, because the entire cast is on stage at the same time, and we create this incredible sound, but it’s scary every night.

CR: Is this a character you've always wanted to play?

AB: I had never seen the show before. I had seen clips and heard Encores! cast recording. People had told me Mary was a good role for me, and I always loved the song “Like It Was,” but Mary wasn’t really on my radar before. Now that she is, I‘m glad. I get to explore this character more. The great thing about this show is that you have a wide range of time that you can play the characters, as opposed to other shows in which the age of the characters is very specific. This show plays around with time, so as you grow as a performer, you can come back to the roles. I hope this is just the beginning.

CR: What are some other awesome female characters you are dying to play?

AB: I would love to give Beth [another character in Merrily] a crack. Her song “Not a Day Goes By” is one of the most beautifully written pieces. I’ve always loved Les Miserables and Fantine. And Dogfight. That’s the dream right now.

Astoria Performing Arts Center’s production of Merrily We Roll Along runs through May 23rd at the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Astoria.

Photos by Michael Dekker.

Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest), Sophia Venetia Voyager, and Soon Never, and her work has been featured in concerts at Lincoln Center, The York Theatre Company, the Duplex Cabaret Theater, the TriArts Sharon Playhouse, the Goodspeed Opera House, and The Laurie Beechman Theatre. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also blogs about theater for The Huffington Post.

Posted at 8:41 PM

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