“A story told backwards:” NWU theatre’s production of Merrily We Roll Along.

This school year, curtains on the McDonald stage part one final time to share a story about, in the words of one of its principal actors, “maintaining a sense of hope.”

Merrily We Roll Along follows the life of Frank Shepherd through the course of his career, relationships, and unfortunate life choices. Lea Ramos (Sophomore, Theatre Arts B.A.), who plays the role of Gussie Carnegie, is undoubtedly a piece of all three.
“We start with Frank, at the end, in 1976,” explains Ramos. “He is very unhappy with his life and what he’s done; the choices that he’s made.”

Lea Ramos, who plays Gussie, is being assisted by Kabrianna Mumford, who is on hair/makeup crew. Photo By Dan Ludert

Although we meet Ramos’ character, Gussie, as Frank’s second wife, we then learn that she began as the lead role in Frank’s premiere successful Broadway show. Shortly after, she is involved in an affair that results in the divorce of Frank and his first wife, Beth.

But, what makes this story truly unique, is its use of non-linear storytelling. Or, as Ramos states, “it is a story told backwards.” Each additional scene takes place several years before the last, with the final moment occurring during the Sputnik launch of 1957. But there is a reason for the show’s use of reserve-chronology.

“It’s just like in real life, when you are looking back. [You are forced] to think about how all your different choices influence or tie back [to another],” says Ramos. “If it was told forwards… I feel you’d be so caught up in the whirlwind of it falling apart, that you lose what Sondheim [the playwright] was trying to do– make you think about… how none of it’s truly about you. It is all about your connections to different people, with these other people’s choices influencing yours. And how your trajectory changes.”

Additionally, due to COVID-19, roles in the production were assigned to swings, which serve as understudies for multiple characters in the show.

“The purpose of having swings is to ensure a backup plan in case one of the actors can not perform due to injury, illness, etc.,” explains Makenzie Adams (Sophomore, Musical Theatre B.F.A.), the swing for Gussie. Swings rehearsed alongside the traditional cast for a majority of the process, before starting to work backstage as part of the run crew during technical runs and performances.

Adams shares more of her experience, saying that “being a swing is a very demanding and tiring job, and… a lot of work goes into parts of theatre that not everyone sees when they come to watch the show. [This process] has given me a bigger appreciation for all the production work that occurs before the show opens.”

When also discussing the production process, as well as being able to work with swing actors, Ramos shared that “learning music, as well as rehearsing alongside us, has been very interesting. They match our tracks, but they also have a different sense of intentions, being their own fleshed out [versions of the] characters.”

Because of this, Ramos has considered this a rewarding, but challenging experience.

This isn’t a show that you can settle into. You have to be on your toes the whole time, because there are so many different moving parts. It has challenged us to live in the moment, and hone in on actor instincts, and make them a lot more solid.”

So, why should someone come see the show?

Ramos answers, “It makes you think about the choices that you’re currently making, the choices that you have made, how they’ve affected you and the people around you… It makes you appreciate the relationships that you have to the people around you.”

Be sure to check out Merrily We Roll Along, re-opening for its second weekend of performances on Thursday, April 22nd for NWU Students and Faculty, and April 23rd for the general public. Reserve your tickets online, or through the box office.

Location: McDonald Theatre

Performance dates:
Thursday, April 22nd, 2021 – 7:30pm (NWU Students & Faculty Only)
Friday, April 23rd, 2021 – 7:30pm
Saturday, April 24th, 2021 – 7:30pm
Sunday, April 25th, 2021 – 2:00pm