In 1981, Merrily We Roll Along opened and closed quickly, a devastating failure that became one for the record books. The day after it shuttered, the cast and crew assembled in the recording studio laying down a cracker jack original cast album that has created a generation of ardent fans of the show and score. In 1985, Stephen Sondheim revisited the show with his new collaborator James Lapine, who subsequently revised George Furth’s book, creating a new version of the show that was to fix the problems with the original. As a result some songs have been dropped, some reshuffled and the narrative brought into better focus, musically.
This resulting revision was what the City Center Encores! performed for its first show in the 2012 season (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream and Jule Styne and Leo Robin’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes are still to come), giving New Yorkers a rare glimpse into this greatly loved, greatly flawed gem that has, unlike the messy but fun Anyone Can Whistle, proven to be a somewhat workable musical. For one thing, Sondheim’s score, which features “Old Friends,” “Good Thing Going,” and “Opening Doors,” is just spectacular, and is one of the best ever composed for a failed show.
It’s the book, loosely based on a Kaufman and Hart play of the same title, which moves backwards in time that lends itself to the most criticism. The musical starts in 1976 and works its way back to 1957 (originally 1955, more on that later), with vignettes filling in the narrative gaps established in the tense opening scene. One of the reasons the show is so fascinating is that the plot hinges almost entirely on dramatic irony for context, taking us from the cynical, jaded and embittered former friends to the young, idealists who met on a NYC rooftop the night of Sputnik. The narrative doesn’t quite satisfy, as it feels like a morality play without a clear moral. But what Sondheim and Furth (and Lapine by extension) created feels like a fascinating experiment in form and structure, and while it doesn’t quite all gel as I’d like it, I’m so glad they created it. (If the narrative unfolded traditionally, it would be insufferable).
The cast is absolutely superb. Colin Donnell brings leading man charisma, good looks and voice to Franklin Shepherd, the ambitious composer turned film producer. Lin-Manuel Miranda is captivating as his best friend, collaborator and conscience Charley Kringas, who delivers one of the score’s most fascinating numbers, “Franklin Shepherd, Inc.” which was an electrifying showstopper in Miranda’s hands. Rounding out the trip of friends is Celia Keenan-Bolger, whose incisive interpretation of Mary Flynn, the alcoholic writer with a torch for Frank, is a knock-out. Ms. Keenan-Bolger is at all times devastating and hilarious, dropping one liners with great humor and unyielding depth.
As Frank’s wives, Betsy Wolfe and Elizabeth Stanley are also quite impressive. Stanley, in particular, is an sensation as Gussie Carnegie, the secretary turned Broadway chorus girl turned star turned has-been (in reverse order). Wolfe has a less flashy role, but sings beautifully and makes an incredible impression with the score’s most famous number, “Not a Day Goes By.” Adam Grupper makes a great impression as the producer.
Lapine directed the production, creating a clear and polished staging that works quite well and smoothens some of the rougher edges of the book, though I could have lived without the projections. I doubt we’ll see a better Merrily for quite some time. I do wish that Lapine and Sondheim would go back and take another look at that final scene. The show ends with the stirring “Our Time,” but the lead-in dialogue is unsatisfying and the stakes not yet at a level to warrant the stirring anthem which closes the show. Originally the trio had known each other in high school, but now they meet in this rooftop scene. Now after some perfunctory dialogue, the writers have thrust these characters into an intimacy that is premature, ultimately stunting the emotional potential of the scene.
Another reason to rejoice: Jonathan Tunick was brought in to work on the orchestrations, combining his originals with the score’s revisions for the first time, created what is probably the definitive reading of the score. I only hope someone considers a cast album of this production, as we’re not likely to have it better any time soon.