Remembering Merrily We Roll Along, David Summers and the “Our Time” of Coming Out and Early AIDS

by Larry Mass for Alek Douglas

Windowcard for the original Broadway production

On June 11. 2024, I turned 78. To celebrate, I went with my good friend and June birthday mate Maryann Feola to see the current Broadway smash hit revival of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical Merrily We Roll Along. As anticipated, it was wonderful. Less anticipated were the floodgates of memory and sentience the play evoked.

Merrily premiered in late 1981, as the early AIDS epidemic grew. In those times, virtually all leading gay artists were like Sondheim in being still in the closet professionally. People knew they were gay, but it wasn’t said publicly. Coinciding with the onset of the epidemic, the closet was a point of contention for activism that had reached a boiling point.

Sondheim wasn’t out, and more vexing was that his subject matter, though sometimes discernibly gay-sentient, was virtually never explicitly about being gay or for that matter AIDS. Such was his brilliance and success as a composer and artist, however, that not only did he get away with staying in the closet for most of his career, his work and reputation have survived activist scrutiny and pressure to thrive in perpetuity.

Though he did eventually come out as gay publicly, he was typical of the artists of his ilk in not linking himself to gay activism or the gay rights movement (especially when it was most needed). Not even our great gay heroes of the day — Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, and Tennessee Williams did so, following in the traditions of virtually all other gay writers and artists in earlier eras of intolerance and oppression, when the risks of doing so were unquestionably much greater.

Despite his willingness to consider a gay rewrite of Company and various public moments of being gay, eventuating in his late-life marriage to Jeff Romley, and with the exception of Addison Mizner’s open homosexuality in the Sondheim Weidman collaboration Road Show, neither gayness nor AIDS ever emerges as an overt theme in the legendary musicals Sondheim created.

In the era of and preceding Sondheim and as showcased in his life and works, gayness always got sublimated into “greater” designations of humanity, of the human condition, of what’s “timeless” and “universal” about life and lives. Inevitably, it’s in this sense of not having used the real truth of his own life more directly as subject matter that the impressively darker story Merrily seems otherwise so at pains to tell is otherwise revealed. The characters are dismayed at the extent to which they see themselves as having sold out in their lives and relationships. It’s a dismay that can seem to ring even more truly for Sondheim than he may ever have been willing otherwise to admit.

However far back cases could be traced decades later, 1981 was essentially the first year of the AIDS epidemic. Any readers of this would not need to be reminded of the public health catastrophe and tragic losses of that early period. Everybody had friends who had AIDS and who were dying of AIDS related illnesses.

One of these angels was a notable early gay and AIDS activist, the cabaret artist David Summers. Well regarded for his gifts as an actor and singer, and as a natural leader and spokesperson, David had achieved a measure of fame as a star of off-off Broadway theater, notably as a star of The Faggot by theater phenom Al Carmines. In that piece, David’s character shows up at a gay bar and sings of his being “the perennial new boy in town.” As I recall, the oratorio (as it was designated by Carmines), was semi-staged at Judson Memorial Church, home base for the irrepressible Reverend Al.

David had that gift that every artist covets: presence. Whatever he did was indelible. It was instantly seared in your memory, conscience and soul. As Merrily We Roll Along accumulated an avalanche of reviews so bad the show had to close after a brief run, David turned the tables of the play’s failure by asking his colleague and friend, Steve Sondheim, for permission to sing a special rendition of the play’s concluding number, “Our Time,” with the Gay Men’s Chorus for Gay Pride in 1982. According to David, after some back and forth with Steve, there was the hoped-for thumbs up. I still get chills up my spine and tears in my eyes as I recall the magic and power of that great finale moment where David let it all hang out and gave full voice to the lyrics: “It’s Our Time…coming through, Me and you Pal, me and you!”

David wasn’t done. He went on to dogged gay activism with his sweet, lovely, husband, the historian Sal Licata. Appearing on the Phil Donahue show to tell the world how he had been abandoned as a person with AIDS by his mother, David once again left an historical mark on society. Such was the characteristic grace and dignity of his presence on that show that his mother came crawling back to David on her knees. He forgave her.

I had never seen Merrily We Roll Along prior to this current revival. I would run into George Furth at recovery meetings, and he couldn’t help being funny even there (he’s deceased so I don’t think I have to keep his anonymity). But I evaded this play the way most others did, never seeking to put the pieces of its heady jumble of life conundrums together with David’s thrilling rendition of “Our Time.” So when the finale of “Our Time” came through last week, it was at once an introduction, remembrance, revelation and experience so powerful I’m still in mid-air.

The show’s other most memorable song, “Not a Day Goes By,” was also a David Summers favorite and showstopper. (See the Glines Special on David below.)

RIP David Summers and his life partner Sal Licata, early, irreplaceable losses to humanity from AIDS and heros of our lives and times. Sal was a gay historian and pioneering AIDS educator. The measure of those losses, like AIDS itself, is so unfathomably huge that history will perforce keep being written and rewritten forever.

Hero of My Own Life: a profile of AIDS activist, David Summers:


New York City, 6/20/24

Lawrence D. Mass, M.D., co-founder Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Lawrencedmass.com