How did we get to be here? Music Director and Orchestrator Alexander Gemignani spoke to us about re-imagining Merrily We Roll Along.
An edited transcript follows. To read the full interview, check out the Merrily We Roll Along UPSTAGE Guide.
A Very New Merrily
With Sondheim’s blessing, I’m thrilled to be doing the new arrangements and orchestrations.
We were able to take our time over a handful of workshops and ask tons of questions about the show. A result of that process led to me asking myself, “How do I address the things we now believe about the Fiasco version of Merrily from a musical perspective?” That can be a very delicate and surgical job.
I have to honor Steve Sondheim’s work, the production’s aesthetic, and my own tastes as well. I find that puzzle really thrilling and electrifying. And, of course, when you’re working with some of the greatest material on the planet, it’s a tremendous gift.
Working with Sondheim
Steve’s very open to and encourages questions, and he’s also extremely collaborative. I actually believe it’s one of the things that makes him the legend and genius he is. He empowers his creative teams to interpret his work in a wild variety of ways, sure, but the story is always paramount.
His ability to approach his own material time and again as if it were new and stay endlessly curious is a truly incredible quality…and that of the purest form of theatre maker.
“Merrily We Roll Along was written in 1980, but the story...concerns two songwriters who came to their maturity in the 1950s, when traditional song forms still ruled the stage; it seemed appropriate, therefore, that it should be told as much as possible in a series of 32-bar songs. I knew this would make the score sound anachronistic; in fact, I hoped it would... the musical and theatrical language of Broadway had evolved considerably, but I hoped to write the score… as if I still believed in those conventional forms as enthusiastically as I had 25 years earlier, before I and my generation had stretched them almost out of recognition.”
The orchestration is eight players: piano, bass, drums, guitar, two trumpets who double on flugelhorns, and two woodwind players. The first woodwind plays flute, clarinet, alto sax, and tenor sax; and the second woodwind plays tenor sax, bass clarinet, and baritone sax. So, they’ll be busy
In any of the bigger choral moments, you have to make sure your bases are covered from a logistical standpoint. Do you have enough voices to cover every line Steve has written to be sung? Pieces like “The Blob,” for instance, have multiple, layered vocal lines, and again you need excellent singing actors to execute it, so no trouble there.
When you look at a show originally performed by 18-20 people and decide to do it with six, you have an opportunity to really essentialize everything that’s happening in the play. When you have a small company, you get to enjoy the virtuosity of an actor going from one role to another in a split second.
I love the score so much and have been lucky enough to have sung several of the songs in concerts or events, etc. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but for some reason, every time we get to the end of “Our Time,” I’m weeping. It’s one of those things that just creeps up on you. It never really happens when I’m working on it out of context. I think I need the whole dramatic arc of the show ahead of it.
As a music director, I love when that song starts to happen because it really is a delicate moment, and I really enjoy delicate moments. I’m also a softy.
Gemignani on Gemignani
My dad, Paul Gemignani, who is music directing Kiss Me, Kate this season, has been music director for many shows at the Roundabout as well as countless musicals spanning a 50-year career. He was also the original MD (music director) on Merrily when it debuted on Broadway in 1981.
I use my dad as a sounding board every now and again, given his vast experience and passion for the art form. For instance, when I was putting together the orchestrations, he had some great thoughts about the sound and style of the score, since he was there when they first made it in ’81.
The fact that I’m doing this kind of work now has allowed us to compare notes about what this job is and how it’s changed since he was starting out, and what integrity in the job means.
—Alexander Gemignani, January 2019. Interview conducted by Ted Sod.