A “Merrily” for Our Time

Picking a favorite can be as difficult as it is pointless (as those of you who have taken the Proust-Vanity Fair-Lipton-Pivot-Diamond Questionnaire can attest). But if asked to name my favorite musical, I say Merrily We Roll Along. My love for Merrily is as complicated as Merrily itself. Everything about this show — including the excellent Encores treatment currently rolling along at the New York City Center — is touched by the legend of the 1981 original Broadway production, sometimes described as one of the most spectacular flops of all time.

If you already know all about Merrily, you can skip this paragraph. Merrily We Roll Along was written by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, based on the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It was produced and directed by Hal Prince. It was the last of the Sondheim/Prince collaborations (1970-1981)*, a phenomenal run which revolutionized musical theatre. Merrily is the story of a composer (Franklin Shepard) and his friends (Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn), as they travel from idealism to disillusionment over the course of twenty years. The story is told backward. The original production was cast with performers in their teens and early twenties. Costumes and sets were representational. The show was hated. “Epidemic” walkouts were reported. Broadway wickedly relished the fall of Sondheim and Prince. Columnists said terrible things.  It closed after sixteen performances. Later, beginning in 1985 at the La Jolla Playhouse, there were smaller productions of Merrily for which Sondheim and Furth performed significant rewrites, and adults were cast. The “new” Merrily got an Off Broadway production from the York Theatre Company in 1994, and was seen at the Kennedy Center in 2002, but it has never returned to Broadway. (For an excellent Merrily production history, see Edward Copeland.)

I’ve always been a little in love with the doomed original production. Conveniently, I didn’t see it (I was four); I know it through bootlegs, photographs, old scripts, and the beautiful original cast album, recorded the day after the show closed. There’s nothing else like that recording. Those poor kids took all the hope and sorrow they’d just been through and poured it into an urgent, searing performance that uniquely expresses the themes of Merrily.

Most musicals have second-act problems, but of course this one has first-act problems. The evening begins with a series of cruelties and heartbreaks among people we don’t yet know, and it’s rough stuff. But it has to be that way, and close attention to the first act is richly rewarded in the second. Relax, folks — it all builds to an iconic Broadway finale, unabashedly sentimental, gleaming with rapturous hope! But…you already know what’s going to happen. Effect, then cause. Merrily We Roll Along makes you feel two things at once.

My friends and I discovered Merrily when we were teenagers. We were theatre kids, and Sondheim was our rock ‘n’ roll, and this was the show that most spoke to us. Crucially, the original Merrily began and ended with scenes set at high school graduations. The first song, and the last, was “The Hills of Tomorrow,” a glorious a capella alma mater. The proper opening number, “Merrily We Roll Along,” was performed by the young graduates, in rebellion against keynote speaker Franklin Shepard, who is droning on about compromise and expedience. The title song was defiant; it was the kids telling the old tightass to piss off.

I undestand that what immediately followed this on stage in 1981 did not play well. After the title song, the kids “became” the jaded adults at Frank’s Bel-Air party. But the first stretch of Merrily is challenging even for performers who are the right age. As Sondheim explains in his book, you can’t expect people that young, no matter how talented, to embody hardened disillusionment. “There was a feeling of amateurness on the stage,” he told Norman Lebrecht. (It must be emphasized, though, that the original cast was bursting with talent. Some of them even went on to play George Costanza on Seinfeld.)

Subsequent Merrilys have eliminated the two graduation scenes, and “The Hills of Tomorrow.” The title song is no longer a rebuke; it’s now an earnest statement of the show’s themes. I miss the freewheeling, youthful exuberance of the old Merrily, perhaps because I miss the freewheeling, youthful exuberance of the old me. But I also believe (at 35, anyhow) that the authors were right: This story is not really about youthful exuberance, and the reworked Merrily is a better play. Two key songs have been added, and there have been important refinements in book and lyrics. The 1994 York Theatre cast album is not the shimmering document of 1981, but it’s the best available recording of the rewritten score.

It turns out that Merrily We Roll Along is not about being young; it’s about growing up. Growing up, Gussie now sings to Frank in Act One, “means admitting the things you want the most,” and letting go of the old Merrily has meant stripping away good ideas that were out of sync with other good ideas. Over its long creative journey, the show itself has grown up. The Encores Merrily, which I saw last night, is absolutely the Merrily for our time. It deserves — it demands! — a full production, and a recording.

Its director is James Lapine, a frequent post-Merrily Sondheim collaborator, and the key figure in what the songwriter has called the “rehabilitation” of Merrily. Lapine directed the 1985 La Jolla production, and played a dramaturgical role, guiding the rewrites. For the current production, there have been a few more improvements. (One is a significant plot point, so I won’t reveal it, nor will I mention which song’s lyrics have been adjusted to accommodate it.)

The cast is extraordinary. Merrily has at its core three very complicated characters, who age backward from forty to twenty, and sing Sondheim. You don’t often get, in one production, superlative interpretations of Frank, Mary, and Charley. Colin Donnell, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are not just individually great; they’re great together. Their collective performance is convincing from end to beginning, rolling along toward a second act full of the exuberance that inspired this project in the first place. They are just right, right now.

The three outstanding leads are complemented by a uniformly fine supporting cast, a fluid Lapine staging, and the overwhelming power of the 23-piece Encores orchestra. (The orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, has made some adjustments, which include the reinstatement of the original overture.**) The projections, by Wendall Harrington, gracefully clarify time and space. They add a welcome Zelig-like dimension to Merrily, placing Frank and his old friends in the culture of their time (much like the topical transitions written in 1981 but discarded during previews).

Stephen Sondheim is the greatest songwriter in the history of Broadway, and Merrily We Roll Along, today, looks like his true masterpiece. I suspect it was never really bad, merely flawed. Maybe it seemed out of touch because it was ahead of its time. Regardless, it’s now the Sondheim musical that speaks most directly to our world, and it’s one of the few Sondheim musicals that has never received a Broadway revival***. Merrily We Roll Along still awaits a definitive production. It awaits a definitive recording. Gang, I think this is it.

Noah

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NOTES:

* The Sondheim/Prince collaborations: Company, Follies, Pacific Overtures, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and then Merrily. Yeah, yeah, they teamed up again in 2003 for Bounce. I know.

** UPDATE: The eagle-eyed, encyclopedic David Levy (of Fuck Yeah Stephen Sondheim) has rightly corrected me on two points. First, my original post neglected to include Passion in the list of Sondheim shows never revived on Broadway (see next note). Secondly, David is right again: The Encores Merrily does not really reinstate the original overture, because it doesn’t include the cut song “Rich and Happy.” I mistakenly identified the Encores overture as “the original” because it builds to an ending which restates the title theme, rather than dribbling out from “Good Thing Going” into the (sung) opening number, as in other post-1981 productions of Merrily. David’s own thoughts on the Encores Merrily can be found here.

*** The others are Anyone Can Whistle and Passion. Technically, Assassins (1991) has never been revived on Broadway; the 2004 revival was its Broadway premiere. The Frogs, too, has only been seen once on the legitimate stage (Lincoln Center, also 2004). Sondheim’s first musical, Saturday Night, and his most recent, Road Show, can’t be revived on Broadway, because they’ve never been there. 

More for Merrily fanatics: In 2002 the original cast reunited for an historic concert, of which ten minutes of video can be seen here. Original cast member Abigail Pogrebin has written movingly about Merrily. The original Charley, Lonny Price, is now a successful director (credits include the excellent filmed concert versions of Sweeney Todd, Passion, and Company), and he’s working on a documentary about the original cast of Merrily. Playbill.com has a gallery of 68 Merrily images, mostly from the original production.

If you know where to look, you can find audio and video bootlegs of numerous Merrily productions, including the original, as well as versions of the script from before and after previews.

On YouTube, there is evidence of many high school and college productions of Merrily We Roll Along; of course these vary in quality, but sometimes they’re incredibly touching. Schools are the only performance venues where the original casting concept can really work. Behold the hills of tomorrow.


In Excellent Company

Image from nyphil.orgLast night, we saw the dazzling big-screen presentation of the New York Philharmonic’s recent mini-production of Company. What threatened to be an awkwardly-staged concert turned out to be a full production of the show, enacted before the Philharmonic Orchestra instead of a set. Because Company is a hybrid of the book musical and the revue, the material perfectly matches the approach.

The director, Lonny Price, has now made a career of events like this; he directed the 2002 concert version of Sweeney Todd, the Sondheim eightieth birthday concert, and many similar projects. He’s the best man for the tricky job of making live theatre work on video. (It was as an actor that Price began his association with Stephen Sondheim, creating the role of Charlie in the original Broadway production of Merrily We Roll Along.)

When the Times reported that this all-star cast was rehearsing via Skype, we had every right to expect a slapdash, thrown-together evening. But, to the credit of Mr. Price and the cast, this Company feels like a legitimate production, with all the precision timing and subtle character comedy demanded by George Furth’s libretto.

Going in, I was not convinced that this was a dream cast, but every member of the Company company is exemplary. The marquee names — Christina Hendricks, Jon Cryer, Martha Plimpton, Stephen Colbert (!) — shed their familiar personas and disappear into perfect realizations of their characters. (If you’re interested, listen to Colbert’s recent Fresh Air interview, in which he discusses his involvement with Company and describes how Sondheim himself asked him to appear in it. While we’re on the subject, if you somehow missed Sondheim’s December appearance on The Colbert Report, watch it right now.) 

Among the theatre people in the cast, I was especially impressed with Jim Walton as Larry. Mr. Walton, who played Frank to Mr. Price’s Charlie in the original Merrily, has become a conspicuous carrier of the Sondheim torch; his rendition of Merrily's “Growing Up” was a highlight of the birthday concert. In Company, he invests Larry with melancholy joy. And Anika Noni Rose, excellent as Marta, breaks with recent tradition by singing “Another Hundred People” exactly as written.

The peerless Patti LuPone has spent the last decade making her mark on the Sondheim canon, often in roles so closely associated with their original interpreters that only an artist of LuPone’s magnitude could even attempt to claim them. As Joanne in Company, she’s brilliantly true to the character, yet she manages to avoid the footprints of Elaine Strich. In LuPone’s hands, the explosive eleven o’clock number “The Ladies Who Lunch” seems to emerge more gracefully than ever from the harrowing scene which frames it.

And Neil Patrick Harris, in the role of Robert (Bobby, Bobby baby, Bobby bubi, etc.), is a revelation. I feared this would be an excessively cute performance, because the very entertaining Mr. Harris is one of the great hams of our time, but I was wrong. This is a mature, subtle, haunting performance of one of the most difficult roles in musical theatre. I thought the Philharmonic would drown out Harris’s thin voice, but I was wrong there too. He’s become a relaxed and assured vocalist, miles beyond his work as the Balladeer in the 2004 revival of Sondheim’s Assassins.

It’s worth noting that this is the second recent filmed version of Company. In 2006, the show was revived on Broadway, in a compelling and innovative production directed by John Doyle. That version was committed to film (beautifully directed by, guess who, Lonny Price), broadcast on PBS, and released on DVD. Thanks to Doyle’s reinterpretation of the show and Raul Esparza’s knockout performance as Bobby, it seemed to be the last word on Company for some time to come.

Like Doyle’s 2005 Sweeney Todd, his Company hinged on having the actors double as the orchestra. By necessity, the orchestrations were reduced to their barest essentials, and the staging was largely based on the transit and placement of musical instruments. It worked astoundingly well, because Doyle turned the gimmick into a metaphor: Robert, the single man among couples, was the only character who didn’t play any music, until the end, when Esparza sat down at the piano and accompanied himself on a raw and emotional rendition of the show’s heartrending finale, “Being Alive.”

But Esparza’s unique performance, and the orchestral concept, made the Doyle Company a departure. For the first time, Bobby was a character, not just a cipher through which the other characters are perceived. Company in 2006 was a show about Bobby, more than a show about marriage.

That, I think, is the justification for the Philharmonic version. This is a more traditional Company, in which Bobby is the blank screen onto which his friends’ personalities are projected. After the sparse arrangements of 2006, hearing the full orchestrations — played by the Philharmonic, no less — reinforced the idea that what we were watching was really the Broadway Company, and the 2006 revival was an experimental detour.

This exhilarating production is a fine entry in the recent spate of Sondheim revivals and celebrations, and it whets the appetite for what’s around the corner. It was recently announced that the Kennedy Center’s revival of Follies will be coming to Broadway this summer, and that the City Center’s 2012 Encores series will include Merrily We Roll Along.

You’re always grateful.