Because I’ve been thinking a lot about getting older and the choices you make along the way, I finally listened to Stephen Sondheim’s musical Merrily We Roll Along. It tells the story of three friends, but it goes backwards in time, starting at their callous middle-age years and ending with their first meeting as carefree young people. Once you know how the show works, it’s quite powerful to see the inevitable future fold back and offer them painful choices you know they have to take.
Sondheim and Hal Prince decided to take the risky step of casting very young people for the show when it premiered on Broadway. The idea was that the audience would see actual young people at the end, rather than middle-aged actors pretending to be young. The catch was that these young people had to act like middle-age people at the beginning.
The show only ran 16 performances. Audiences found it confusing, and critics were ready to pan Sondheim and Prince for it. While the musical has long since been revived and the vision vindicated, I can’t help but think the casting of such young people was part of the initial problem.
It’s not that young people can’t act. It’s just that older people remember being young, and most young people really, really can’t tell what it’s going to be like being older. Only a few (like Bernadette Peters in Sunday in the Park With George) pull that off successfully.
What I’ve seen happen is that younger actors “act old.” Watching this sort of thing, I tend to feel as though they are pretending to be a different person, an “old person.” It’s rarely convincing.
If I were an acting coach, I think I’d suggest the following way to think about it.
Every person has lived a lifetime and they tell the same KIND of story about their life. It begins with a condensed past, and it ends in the present, with the uncertain future seen as a kind of “sequel.” The difference between a person of one age and another isn’t a question of type, but of degree: people of different ages have different material, but they do the same thing with it.
Young people, even kids, can tell you their joys and regrets from when they were “little”. They have lots of memories about a very short period of time. They have to condense their unimaginable futures into this big event that they make vague plans for.
People my age have lots of joys and regrets to remember, which they must condense into something short enough to make a good story. Barring some disaster, most of them can expect to live a while longer, so they still have an unimaginable future which they make plans for. They are more anxious about the future, because it’s less certain.
I can’t imagine what being 100 is like, but I imagine one’s hopes for the future involve the very near term…will I be okay for the next day or so? All one really has left is the big story of the past. It’s so condensed that it hardly makes sense to anyone who isn’t 100.
If I were going to act like an older or younger person, I should first find the commonality between myself and the person I’m going to become. Then I can bring in the differences. I suspect most people do it the other way ‘round.
At 20 I had a vision of myself that I wanted to be, and I thought I’d get there by 30. I had a past with a number of choices I wish I’d done a little differently. I was happy sometimes, but I could never depend on the feeling.
Today I am the person I wanted to be at 20, but I still have a vision of myself at 70 or 90. I still have a past with a number of choices I wish I’d done a little differently. However, today I recognize that I took the only path my younger self was capable of taking.
And, should I reach old age, who will I be at the end of my life? If I had to do it on stage, I’d have to have a vision for the person I want to be, but perhaps it would be a vision for today and tomorrow, rather than some undefined period of years. As for my past, I think I’ll feel the same way about my current self that my current self feels about my younger self: regretful and forgiving!
Each “self” has a past to make sense of and a future to think about, and does it in the present. Sounds simple enough. Hard to remember when you’re limping along with your “old person” stick.
I’d recommend seeing or hearing Merrily We Roll Along, and then I’d see the documentary about it, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. You’ll get to hear the young actors, now older, talk about their lives, and that may help you in your desire to understand the differences between who we were, who we are, and who we want to be. It helped me.
Adam Cole is a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books. Fantasy author, music educator and performer, Adam chats weekly on the subject of listening, creativity and living your best life. To get a free book on marketing tips for passing out fliers, getting on your own radio show, and writing a blog people will read, please go to www.mymusicfriend.net and subscribe.