So last night I attended Merrily We Roll Along at NYFA. I have a strange relationship with this show and I found the evening to be surprisingly and overwhelmingly emotional. As I followed the characters in this show back through their past and watched the repercussions of the decisions they made, I found myself examining my past, my decisions, my life.
My blog posts are typically about the teaching of dance; this one will be different.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, Merrily… follows the lives of its three main characters, Frank, Charlie and Mary, backwards through time, and the resulting story is both heartbreaking and tragic. But the heartbreak, because of the timeline of the show, sneaks up on you in a way that is totally unexpected. When the show opens we find the three characters angry, unhappy, vicious and no longer friends. We know the ending right from the start; we know that their story doesn’t end well. But as the play unfolds, and we travel back through time with them, we watch them get gradually younger, more idealistic, more optimistic until ultimately, in the show’s final scene we find Frank and Charlie on a rooftop in New York where they meet Mary. They are all in college. They are all fresh and innocent. They are all looking toward their future with wide-eyed anticipation and excitement. They are ready to conquer the world. And seeing them like this, while knowing how they will end up, made my soul ache in a way that I found very surprising.
This is not the first time that I’ve seen this show, but this is the first time that I had a reaction this strong. Frank, Charlie and Mary end up the way they do because of decisions that they made. And there I sat, reliving the last thirty years of my life, reflecting on the decisions I made and how they guided my path.
My first paid dancing job was in a regional production of A Chorus Line. In that cast I made two very close friends. It’s ironic in that we were very much like Frank, Charlie and Mary at the end of Merrily; young, happy and inseparable….. and like Frank, Charlie and Mary at the top of the show (the end of their story); we are no longer friends. When A Chorus Line closed, the three of us created a revue that we performed around town (like the three characters in Merrily…) and it was one of the happiest times in my life (again, like those three characters). But then life throws roadblocks at us, and we need to make decisions; and those decisions affect our lives in ways we could never imagine. I made some decisions that I deeply regretted for many years. I was quite adept at blaming my family, blaming my friends, blaming my support system for the decisions and the mistakes that I made.
When I reached my late forties I found myself disillusioned, unhappy, and estranged from those friends that I so treasured in my youth. When I was about to turn fifty I took my first step to turning my life around: I had made some really bad decisions. And rather than continue being angry I made the DECISION to FIX the situation. I decided to apply for a job teaching ballet at a small neighborhood dance school. And all of a sudden this teaching career happened. And doors started opening. And I found myself teaching at CAP21, NYFA, Molloy College, Hunter College, Marymount Manhattan College, Joffrey Ballet School and Broadway Dance Center. And now I have made another decision (that I’m not quite ready to discuss) to keep me “Rolling Along” in my teaching career; the career that wasn’t supposed to happen; the career that shouldn’t have been possible. But I am determined NOT to end up like Frank, Charlie and Mary. We all know that this business is brutal and that the competition is fierce. But the three hours spent in the theater reminded me how important each decision can be; and I hope that I can remind my colleagues and students to carefully weigh each decision at each crossroad. And when we make the wrong decision – as we all inevitably do at some point in our lives – I hope that I can encourage these decision-makers to resist the temptation to just sit back. Try not to remain defeated and angry, glaring with disdain both toward the past and the future. I am now, at my age, looking at my future with “wide-eyed” anticipation as I am currently discussing future guest teaching engagements in Russia, England, Ireland and Switzerland. And who knows, perhaps I may someday reunite with those treasured cast-mates that I have lost. To borrow a lyric from Merrily… “I’m opening doors”.