Despite the comparably dismal length of their Broadway runs, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is an entirely different species of flop from Carrie. The latter was an intruder on the Great White Way from the start, the implausible musical version of a Stephen King novel and hit horror flick that mixed high school, pigs’ blood and mass murder, from the composer of Fame.
Merrily, though, had a meta dimension that composer Stephen Sondheim, with his taste for theatrical pastiche, might have appreciated in different circumstances. It told the story of a successful Broadway musical team and their disastrous falling-out, and by the time the show had played its 16th and final performance, it had fulfilled its own prophecy. Sondheim and director/producer Harold Prince, co-creators of probably the most phenomenal consecutive string of musicals in Broadway history–Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd–were a partnership no longer. (They briefly, and unsuccessfully, tried to reunite decades later.)
In addition, even while the original production of Merrily We Roll Along was driving itself off a cliff, it was clear that there was greatness in the show, a score that combined Sondheim’s typical ingeniousness and rigor with big, tuneful numbers. The cast album never stopped selling; songs from the score never stopped being performed. The show was constantly tinkered with and revised, but never quite solved. The new Encores! production, a limited run–now ended–directed by James Lapine (himself Sondheim’s collaborator of choice during the post-Prince chapter of his career, and someone who’s directed Merrily before) may come tantalizingly closer than any version has before.
Merrily tells the not-unfamiliar story of a trio of friends–composer Franklin Shepard (Colin Donnell), lyricist/playwright Charlie Kringas (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and novelist Mary Flynn (Celia Keenan-Bolger)–who start out idealistic youths, freshly graduated from college, and who over the years turn variously alcoholic (Mary), embittered (Charlie) and selfishly materialistic (Frank). The twist is that the story is told backwards, beginning with the protagonists as disillusioned and middle-aged in 1976, and proceeding step by step to their first joyful meeting in 1957. Much has been written about the challenges this approach (adapted from a Kaufman & Hart play) creates, and the blame for the show’s failure has been placed on George Furth’s book. As the various versions of the show over the years have shown, though, the problems are fundamental, starting with the ages of the actors that should be cast (the original Broadway production spanned 25 years instead of 20, and just within the performances I saw, Prince started with an extremely young cast who had to pretend to be much older in Act 1, then added a middle-aged Frank at the start, and eventually it was all so confusing that he had to identify the characters with t-shirts that literally said what their relation was to Frank). The Encores! production, as others have, adopted the logical approach of casting people somewhere between their raw youth and middle-age.
More problematic is the fact that while the usual story about people losing their ideals introduces them when they’re still likable and lets us gradually see them become less so, Merrily throws us into the pit with characters who are irritating and unsympathetic at the start, and makes us wait a full act before we can see what initially made them redeemable. This was particularly true in the original Broadway version, which began with a deliberately garish Hollywood party sequence that’s been substantially toned down over the years. Also helpful has been the addition of the number “Growing Up,” where characters ruminate about the changes they’re making in their lives.
The pieces still don’t fit together. The show continues to provide no character arc for Frank to explain why he, alone of the original trio, abandons his principles and even his desire to compose music–he remains a passive, undeveloped figure who, for no convincing reason, follows the awful Gussie (Elizabeth Stanley), first his mistress, then his second wife, around by the nose. Characters important early in the protagonists’ lives either drop out of the story entirely (Frank’s first wife Beth) or suffer awkwardly melodramatic reversals (Frank’s original producer Joe). Despite the decades of effort that have now gone into the show, it remains a work in progress.
So Merrily We Roll Along may never be perfect. In one of those great theatrical paradoxes, though, it’s often thrilling and wildly entertaining to watch. As performed by the Encores! group. Sondheim’s brilliant score–composed in reverse, so reprises precede full songs, and early numbers contain references to songs that the audience hasn’t heard yet–is wonderfully sung and gorgeously orchestrated by Sondheim’s usual ally Jonathan Tunick. As Frank, Donnell has a Jon Hamm-like quality, and that’s an awfully good quality for an enigmatic lead to have. People who’ve seen Miranda in his own In the Heights may be shocked by how well he fits the role of Charlie. Keenan-Bolger finds every nuance in what can easily be the pathetic part of the love-sick Mary. And although probably no one could make Gussie entirely human, Stanley shows a welcome restraint and finds a plausible path for her character.
The Encores! productions aren’t full-scale, so production design was mostly limited to (effective) projections, and there’s a minimum of choreography. The show remains a carrot on a stick that’s perpetually slightly out of reach. But Merrily We Roll Along, with all its flaws, is a more satisfying and memorable musical than many–make that most–giant hits.
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