PROVO — The gods of theater are smiling on Andrew Joy.
The Brigham Young University undergraduate is the first student to helm a stage show as its sole producer since the inception of the university’s theater department.
While it took skillful convincing, both at BYU and with direct representatives of composer Stephen Sondheim, Joy is producing “Merrily We Roll Along,” one of the Broadway giant’s treasured works but rare flops — and the student’s favorite musical. And a nationally known theater professional, with his own dramatic story to tell, is directing the show, his first since relocating to Utah.
“The show has great music and a great message, and that is what sold it to me,” said Joy. “As I went through this whole approval process, I became even more passionate about the message.”
As producer, Joy is single-handedly responsible for the musical’s budget, management and licensing. An important hurdle he had to overcome was negotiating rights with Music Theatre International, the theatrical powerhouse. Though the musical is listed as rated PG on the company’s website, there are words written into “Merrily” that would not be appropriate for staging at BYU.
Joy was required to review the script line by line and identify suggested alternatives for review by MTI. He was surprised to receive the somewhat rare permission to make revisions. Some theater writers, such as Neil Simon, have famously not allowed any alterations to their penned works.
With that consent, Joy also had to receive the approval of BYU theater officials, who had been questioning a production at the university. “But I was able to say that I was in this show in high school,” Joy said.
BYU’s “Merrily” is a regional premiere and only the second production in Utah, according to MTI, after the state premiere at Joy’s high school, Clearfield High.
What compelled Joy to continue his pursuit of “Merrily” was the strength of its story.
“The show is about students in different parts of the artistic field who, instead of acting for themselves, they are acted upon,” he said. “With their individual consequences, they slowly progress to a place where they would not have dreamed themselves to be at in the beginning. And that happens a lot, not just with students in the arts but people in general. If you’re not proactive in trying to do the things that you feel are the best, you will end up in a place you don’t necessarily want to be.
“The characters in the story are all good people. They make choices and then they have to live with the consequences.”
The themes of “Merrily” are friendship, compromise and the price of success, related through the lives of songwriter Franklin Shepard, his lyricist Charley Kringas and writer Mary Flynn. The musical, with a book by George Furth, is based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.
In another stroke of theatrical good fortune, Scott Eckern showed interest in “Merrily,” enough that he agreed to direct it. Beginning in 1984, Eckern was involved with California Musical Theatre, that state’s largest nonprofit arts organization, where he produced more than 150 musicals.
But in 2008 he was singled out by a small but vocal movement demanding that he be fired. Eckern had made a minimal donation, representing his private choice of values and religion, to a statewide political campaign. After "prayerful consideration," he resigned his post as artistic director. "I am disappointed that my personal convictions have cost me the opportunity to do what I love the most," Eckern wrote in a public statement.
Along with his association with BYU as adjunct professor, Eckern is currently program manager for the video services department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Scott Eckern coming aboard as the director has been a great, great thing,” Joy said. “I’ve learned a lot from him, and the whole cast has as well.”
Because the musical has the unusual concept of telling the story in reverse order, tracing its characters’ fortunes from their jaded present to their idealistic past, Eckern flipped the standard approach to learn the roles.
“We rehearsed it and learned it originally from the end of the show, when people are 23, and ran it backward,” Joy said. “Scott knew that if the actors built their characters from where the students are now in life that it was easier to add experiences on top of that, instead of at the beginning telling themselves, ‘I’m playing a 45-year-old.’”
Joy added, “We have an amazing cast. There a few people who just blow my mind. We’re really blessed to have them in it. This is an ensemble show, and no one can say, ‘Oh, I’m just going to hide out in the back.’ Each cast member has stepped it up.”
Seeing each Sondheim show on stage is on the bucket list for theater followers. While there have been multiple productions of the composer’s “Into the Woods” and a sprinkling of “Sweeney Todd” in the state, Joy’s production of “Merrily” will be a rare chance to see one of the master craftsman’s earliest works — at its second production in Utah.
If you go:
What: “Merrily We Roll Along”
Where: BYU Margetts Theatre
When: Thursday-Saturday, March 15-17, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, March 17, at 2 p.m.
How much: $6-$8
Tickets: 801-422-4322 or byuarts.com/tickets