At the age of 25, Jim Walton originated the role of Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway. Walton talks about the highs and lows of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that came his way after being a New York actor for only two years. Walton has gone on to appear in any number of Broadway shows, including The Mystery of Edwin Drood and revivals of The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, On the Twentieth Century, and the recent She Loves Me. He’s also seen frequently at major regional theaters and Off-Broadway as well as making regular television and movie appearances. On the eve of the release of Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened on Oct. 9 at the New York Film Festival, Walton had an e-mail chat for Everything Sondheim with Bob Neu about his memories of Merrily and about the experience of filming this documentary 35 years after starring in Merrily.
Everything Sondheim: Tell us a little bit about your career pre-Merrily.
Jim Walton: Prior to moving to New York City, my work was mostly non-union at the still operating and wonderful Wagon Wheel Playhouse in Warsaw, Indiana, the adorable Showboat Majestic in Cincinnati, Ohio and the Naples Dinner Theater in Florida. I arrived in New York in February of 1979 — two and half years before Merrily. In that time, I appeared in two Off-Broadway revues (Big, Bad Burlesque and Scrambled Feet), and in a short-lived Broadway revue, Perfectly Frank. The latter closed the old Helen Hayes Theatre, torn down to make room for the Marriott Marquis Theatre. I was also the superintendent of my apartment building for one year, but maybe that’s another interview .…
EvSo: You already had some impressive New York credits — so were you called in for the show or did you go through a cattle call?
Walton: I’m not sure my New York credits were all that impressive but I imagine they helped me get cast and gave me confidence. I was given an audition appointment for the ensemble and for a featured role, and was then offered a call-back appointment. I was excited mainly to hopefully meet Stephen Sondheim, George Furth and Harold Prince, my heroes from Company.
EvSo: What were the auditions like for Merrily?
Walton: I don’t remember that much about the auditions, though I recall more about the final call-back. I remember feeling I was too old for the show. When Hal Prince asked my age towards the end of my appointment, for a frozen moment in time I considered lying, feeling I could get away with chopping off a year or two. But I realized I didn’t want to lie to Prince, nor did I want to get a job from being untrue. I calmly told him, “I’m 25 years old,” and he said, “Thank you, Jim.” I thought his ‘thank you’ was the end. And then, within an hour, I was told I’d been cast!
EvSo: Were Prince and Sondheim at the table throughout the auditions or just at call-backs?
Walton: They were only at the call-backs. The great casting director, Joanna Merlin, held the first auditions alone.
EvSo: Tell us what it was like stepping into the lead role after being cast in the ensemble.
Walton: It was awesome — thrilling and frightening. I was excited and challenged by the opportunity, while at the same time I remember feeling heartbroken for James Weissenbach, the original Franklin Shepard, whom I replaced. It was difficult for me to efficiently process my feelings of guilt, of feeling I’d “taken” the role from him. But I had no time to process any of it, really, with so much suddenly on my plate. I remember feeling I needed to be “careful” as I was being directed by Harold Prince, singing amazing Sondheim songs. I felt I had to hit my marks and do my very best. But in hindsight, I wish now I’d had the courage to feel just a bit more and to listen to my instincts and really let it all hang out. But I was who I was at that time, conservative and somewhat fearful, and I’m content to know they cast me and I tried my hardest to make it work.
EvSo: Since you went into the role during previews, did you have much “advance warning” before going on?
Walton: I had four days to learn the role, though I’d heard the music and lines many times during the four-week rehearsal process and one week of previews. I had been playing the role of Jerome, Frank’s lawyer, but I hadn’t been cast as Frank’s understudy. So I didn’t have the usual understudy’s head start.
EvSo: Did you feel considerable pressure since you were the “new guy” (to the role, at least — not new to the cast)?
Walton: I’m sure I did feel that pressure, but I was young and maybe on the overly-confident side. In hindsight, I sense that confidence was manifested largely to delude myself out of feeling insecure, which could have choked me. I was lucky to share the stage with wonderful actors and generous human beings such as Lonny Price, Ann Morrison, Jason Alexander, Terry Finn, Clark Sayre, Maryrose Wood, Marianna Allen and the entire ensemble. There are too many people to name, so forgive me—but they all supported me with such love and praise that it was impossible not to give in and have a blast with them at every performance. Also, Prince, Sondheim, Furth, Larry Fuller (choreographer) and Paul Gemignani (music director) were behind me, and I appreciated their support tremendously. They were extraordinarily kind and respectful to the entire cast, which softened the enormity of their untouchable greatness into a feeling of family. That still astonishes me to this day. It’s an understatement to say I felt I was the luckiest actor in New York.
EvSo: As a young performer, and still relatively new to New York theater, what in the world was it like being cast in the Broadway production of a Stephen Sondheim musical directed by Hal Prince?
Walton: It’s hard to describe, to remember. If I hadn’t had the enormous challenge before me I might have spun off the rails in some way, into overblown pride — or fear. I just wanted so much to please the creative team, and for the musical to be a success, that I luckily didn’t fall into any sort of delusional arrogance or entitlement. To be in the presence of such greatness grounded me.
EvSo: Was it overwhelming?
Walton: I don’t remember it as being overwhelming, though I’m sure I had many struggles along the way. I do remember Paul Gemignani telling me he didn’t fully believe me when I sang “Not a Day Goes By.” He was right. It was difficult to sing, emotionally, and it would still give me challenges today in that regard.
EvSo: How did you personally deal with the excitement and the pressure?
Walton: I don’t remember how I dealt with that at the time. I luckily had a very supportive team of family and friends, including my girlfriend (and fellow cast member) at the time, Janie Gleason (now Janie Scott), who helped enormously. She became my wife during the show’s short run.
EvSo: You never really know what you have until it’s in front of an audience. Could you sense from the first preview that the show was having challenges?
Walton: I remember feeling that the show had challenges early on, but I believed in the creators tremendously. Because of that, it was hard to imagine the show not working. However, I also recall empty balconies at many preview performances, especially during the second act. As Act II began, Lonny, Ann and I spun slowly around on a turn-table through which we could peak at the audience. I remember one night we saw there were a few people in the balcony, and we jumped up and down in hushed celebration that people were coming back after intermission! That’s a sweet, sad and funny memory.
EvSo: Hal Prince has spoken openly about his frustration in trying to make the show work. Could that frustration be felt in rehearsals, particularly after the show went into previews? Or did the atmosphere remain positive?
Walton: Prince’s attitude remained positive throughout the entire experience. He was terrific to the cast, like we were all his kids. And he’s remained a loyal and friendly presence in my life ever since. I admire him tremendously.
EvSo: We know that the sets and staging were changed dramatically during the rehearsal process. Were there considerable changes made to the book and score as well? Lots of material added or cut?
Walton: It’s hard to remember the specific changes, but I know there were many. Songs were cut, scenes were cut and/or rewritten. One big change I remember was that Mary was added to the Act II reprise of “Not a Day Goes By.” It was heartbreaking and genius to change it as they did. I remember that one time I didn’t get a note about a bit of business that was cut, although the other actors did get the note. They adjusted and I didn’t and I went into it full-force one night, learning onstage that the bit had been cut. There were so many changes it was bound to happen. (And maybe I got the note and didn’t take it in.)
EvSo: Did Sondheim actively participate in rehearsals?
Walton: He certainly did. I remember him being there more often than not, often coming to the front of the stage to give a note with his score and a New York Times tucked under his arm.
EvSo: Do you have any particular memories of those notes?
Walton: One in particular has stayed with me: I remember Sondheim trying to explain to us 20-somethings the idea of what he called “wasted lives,” lives spent pursuing illusions instead of dreams. I felt that we all collectively stood there on the Alvin Theater stage and nodded respectfully as if we understood. I didn’t, but I believed he knew something, some trap our destinies might set for us. I remember feeling that it was some kind of warning, to stay in touch with what we really dreamed. I see him now in that moment as our own Polonius, telling us “To thine own self be true.” I’ve never forgotten that moment. I also remember him working with me on his great song, “Our Time,” instructing me on simple things like when to look at Lonny, when to look out, when to feel a euphoric sense of awe, when to celebrate the excitement. He knew what he wanted very thoroughly. He helped me enormously, and in hindsight I’m sure I needed that attention as an actor.
EvSo: How was the morale after the closing notice was posted?
Walton: Not good! We were destroyed. We knew it was special. It was crushing.
EvSo: Did Sondheim and/or Prince actively try to keep things positive? Or was it a case of having to adopt the belief of “Well, that’s show biz”?
Walton: They kept things positive with the cast, and any misgivings they had were directed elsewhere. They were like loving parents who shielded us from things we weren’t prepared to face. Paul Gemignani would frequently make little hand-written signs he’d hold up from the pit for us to read during bows. After one performance when Abby Pogrebin missed an entrance, Paul held up a sign reading, “Abby, call your agent.” We laughed so hard, and I see that moment now as Paul’s way of reminding us to keep our senses of humor through all of the trials. He was wonderful and in many ways our ultimate leader—there every night, strongly leading that amazing orchestra and all of us.
EvSo: Do you have any particularly strong memories from closing night?
Walton: I don’t remember much from closing night, though I remember the audiences were enthusiastic, especially by the end of the run. I remember feeling great excitement at closing since the following day we would record the cast album — a first for me. I remember feeling certain then that the show would live on, and I remember feeling more vindicated for Sondheim than for anyone else. It’s an understatement to say that he’s remained my most influential inspiration as an artist in the theater.
EvSo: What can we expect from the documentary?
Walton: It’s hard for me to put into words all that it offers. I was profoundly moved. There are great interviews with Prince and Sondheim in the present and from the past. There are clips from auditions for Merrily. There are humorous moments as well as profoundly sad ones. I told Lonny [Price] that it’s the best production of Merrily I’ve ever seen. Lonny has “raised the Titanic,” and we all get to walk around on it for two hours.
EvSo: Did the cast actually get together for filming or were segments done individually?
Walton: Segments were shot individually and small groups of cast members were also gathered. One of the group sessions included a trip to the (now) Neil Simon Theatre where we sat on the stage and in our old dressing rooms. It was almost ghostly to be back in that beautiful theater. It reminded me of dreams I’ve often had as an adult in which I’ve magically gained access to my long-ago boyhood home, to walk around in the quiet stillness and revel in the sweetness of life.
EvSo: What thoughts do you have now reflecting back on your experience during Merrily?
Walton: Merrily seems to forever symbolize new beginnings for me. It’s odd but when autumn comes, I have moments when I seem to return to 1981. I remember the Michael Bennett Studios where we rehearsed, and going to nearby Pete’s Tavern for lunch. I remember the Studios’ elevator operators, actual men who took us from floor to floor. And since that time, Merrily has been the gift that keeps on giving. I knew the show would live on through the cast album, but I had no idea it would live on to this degree.
EvSo: Any other final thoughts?
Walton: I hope your readers get to see the documentary. It’s far better than my words here could explain. It’s quite a profound look inside that show and captures the poignant heartbreak of looking back on one’s life with both deep appreciation and haunting regret. Thanks for joining me for my look back.
EvSo: Thank you, Jim.
BOB NEU is an opera and music theater director who works around the country, including Central City Opera, Shreveport Opera, Emerald City Opera and Minnesota Orchestra. He is artistic director of Skylark Opera Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, and co-founder and co-president of Angels and Demons Entertainment, a production and arts consultancy firm. He was lucky enough to have seen the original production of Merrily We Roll Along.