A Sondheim Musical Rolls Back to Life

In its revival of the 1981 Merrily We Roll Along, the Encores! series resurrects a famous old flop and gives it a happy ending

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Joan Marcus / Helene Davis Public Relations / AP

Elizabeth Stanley and cast in "Merrily We Roll Along"

“It’s a hit, it’s a hit, it’s a palpable hit!” sang the two Broadway songwriters and their producer about a fictitious musical within the actual 1981 Broadway musical Merrily We Roll Along. Unfortunately for the composer Stephen Sondheim, the librettist George Furth and their producer-director Harold Prince, Merrily was a palpable flop that annoyed many critics, baffled much of the audience and closed after a chaotic month of previews and 16 official performances. It marked the first commercial disaster for the Sondheim-Prince team, the creators of Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and for Furth, their collaborator on the book of Company.

Based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the show told a 24-year story of youthful idealism and midlife anomie, but told it backward. As one couplet from the first-act finale went: “I mean ya gotta have endings / Or there wouldn’t be beginnings.” But many theatergoers left at intermission and didn’t return for the second-act beginnings. The couplet probably should have gone: “I mean you gotta have turkeys / Or there wouldn’t be Thanksgiving.”

(MORE: Does Broadway Hate Stephen Sondheim?)

And you gotta have closings or there wouldn’t be revivals. That’s the function of Encores!, the three-times-a-year concert series at New York’s City Center that since 1994 has dusted off old Broadway shows, polished their grand scores and hired the finest talent to stage and perform them. Usually played just five or six times, the shows are often the hands-down highlights of any Broadway season. Many Encores! smashes have been exhumations of musicals from the 1920s and ’30s: the Gershwins’ Strike Up the Band, Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms, Sigmund Romberg’s The New Moon. But some are of more recent vintage, like the 1976 Chicago — whose 1996 Encores! revival moved to Broadway and is still running after 6,330 performances — and Sondheim’s own 1971 Follies, an Encores! astonishment in 2007.

(MORE: See Corliss’ review of the 2007 Encores! season)

All those shows were, in essence, pristine presentations of the originals. Merrily underwent a more tortuous trip to City Center: literally decades of rewrites and rethinks, spurred by writer-director James Lapine at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985, that culminated in a 2001 West End run that earned the show the Olivier Award for the year’s best musical. Now, with Lapine again directing and Rob Berman’s 23-piece ensemble playing the score in grander arrangements by the original orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, Merrily is back in midtown Manhattan, a few blocks from its difficult birth, in something close to triumph. This time, it will enjoy a 13-performance run that ends February 19. The venerable turkey can finally enjoy its own Thanksgiving, in which it is not stuffed but celebrated.

(MORE: Bravo Encores!)

It’s 1981 as the show begins, and movie producer Franklin Shepard (Colin Donnell, taking a break from co-starring in the Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes) is hosting the opening of his latest hit. At the fête is his old friend Mary Flynn (Celia Keenan-Bolger, Tony-nominated for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), a successful novelist who has become a professional drinker and misanthrope. “We go way back,” says Frank, and Mary adds, “But seldom forward.” The show then pogo-sticks back, a few years at a time, in search of Frank’s early dreams and illusions — on the events that soured him on life and his friends on him. He’s the mystery man in the middle, as attractive and elusive a central character as Bobby in the Sondheim-Furth Company.

The literary conceit of telling a story backward was not exactly novel even when Kaufman and Hart tried it (in a show that gave work to a gargantuan cast of 91 and ran for 155 performances). W.R. Burnett published his reverse-time novel Goodbye to the Past in 1934, the same year as the original Merrily play. Twelve years before that came F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” in which time proceeds in its customary fashion but the protagonist spins backward from old age to infancy. Philip K. Dick sent time reeling back in his short story “Your Appointment Will Be Yesterday” and his novel Counter-Clock World. Later playwrights and filmmakers who toyed with the trope include Harold Pinter in Betrayal, Christopher Nolan in Memento and Gaspar Noê in Irreversible. But Sondheim & Co. were probably the first to apply it to that most traditional of all popular forms, the Broadway musical.

(MORE: A 2003 revival of the prime Sondheim musical Gypsy)

In a series of flashbacks augmented by photo-shopped montages of our antihero with Johnny Carson, John Lennon, Betty Friedan and other Zeitgeist checkpoints of the ’60s and ’70s, we learn that Frank and his old pal Charley Kringas (Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star and Tony-winning composer of In the Heights) had written some hit Broadway shows produced by the raspish Joe Josephson (Adam Grupper). When Frank encamped for Hollywood without finishing the iconoclastic musical Charley had long dreamed of writing, the partnership split up in acrimony. Frank married and divorced two singers, blond Beth Spencer (Betsy Wolfe), who had performed with him and Charley in a cabaret revue, and sultry Gussie Carnegie (Elizabeth Stanley), the star of the Shepard-Kringas shows and Joe’s ex-wife.

The show wants to know what detoured Frank from the road of good intentions, so it plunges into his past, the way the reporter-detective did in Citizen Kane. Yet this is no sacred monster of Charles Foster Kane proportions, no Franklinstein; he’s just a Broadway songwriter who becomes a movie producer, like Buddy DeSylva and Arthur Freed, and runs through a couple of wives and a couple of friends — not exactly a tragic tumble. Herman J. Mankiewicz, who would win an Oscar for the Kane screenplay, saw the Kaufman-Hart Merrily, where the main character is a playwright, and acutely anatomized the show’s central flaw: “Here’s this wealthy playwright who has had repeated successes and earned enormous sums of money, has mistresses as well as a family, an expensive town house, a luxurious beach house and a yacht. The problem is: How did the poor son of a bitch get into this jam?”

(MORE: Johnny Depp sings Sondheim in the Sweeney Todd movie)

By expanding the reverse-time frame from Kaufman and Hart’s 16 years to 24, beginning in 1957, Sondheim and Prince were inviting inferences of autobiography; their own collaboration had begun that year, when Prince co-produced and Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story. “In truth,” the composer wrote in his memoir-songbook Finishing the Hat, “like the characters in the show, I was trying to roll myself back to my exuberant early days, to recapture the combination of sophistication and idealism that I’d shared with Hal Prince… and the rest of us show business supplicants, all stripped back to our innocence.”

Prince wanted to underline this innocence by casting youngsters in the main roles. It turned out they were the right age for their characters at the end of the show but simply miming maturity for the rest of it; the actors’ callowness undercut the lyrics’ brittle wit and the story’s acid melancholy. It was as if Mickey and Judy had tried to turn an Edward Albee psychodrama into a perky musical comedy. (The one exception was Jason Alexander, the 22-year-old who played Joe, because, as Sondheim noted, “he had been born middle-aged.” Alexander survived the debacle to find work as George Costanza on Seinfeld; and Lonny Price, the 1981 show’s Charley, would direct the Lincoln Center concert revival of Company three decades later.)

(MORE: How were Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert in the Company revival?)

Lapine cast this production mostly with actors in their 30s, who can be plausible as young strivers or as broken souls approaching middle age. Donnell is excellently enigmatic as Frank the golden boy who’s hollow inside; he might be a Broadway-Hollywood Mitt Romney. Stanley, titian-haired and of a slightly overripe lusciousness, adds a throaty alto comic gravitas to Gussie; she’s supposed to be the parody of a musical-comedy star but could be the real thing. In fact, the whole cast is swell. Tonys for everyone!

The Encores! version doesn’t quite solve the conundrum of characters who, as Sondheim wrote of the original, “were, if not exactly three-dimensional, at least two-and-a-half.” Mary’s aching, unrequited love for Frank, and Charley’s neediness for him as a perennial songwriting partner, seem more their problems than his; and the show smacks of righteous sentiment in its belief that there’s a stigma to easy success. But few musicals are flawless as literary properties; you don’t come away humming the book. The songs, and the mood and verve and expertise, not the play, are the thing; and in all these aspects, Merrily sings.

Moreover, it sings in a vernacular that caresses the ears of the Encores! audience, steeped in the 32-bar tradition of the old Broadway masters. In A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd, Sondheim had expressed himself in the operatic, Asian and art-song vocabulary. Musically, it was caviar, not the steak-and-ice-cream tunesmanship audiences still desired. As Joe Josephson tells the young songwriters: “Why can’t you throw ’em a crumb? / What’s wrong with letting ’em tap their toes a bit? / I’ll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit. / Give me some melody!”

(MORE: a review of the 2001 revival of Follies)

Set in the modern showbiz milieu, Merrily forced Sondheim to write more than one “hum-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mable melody.” The plangent “Not a Day Goes By” serves both as a declaration of urgent love (for Frank and Beth and, secretly, for the pining Mary) and as a betrayed wife’s mantra of heartbreak (“I’ll die day after day after day after day after day after day after day”). “Good Thing Going” is a top-40-worthy love song that also defines Frank and Charley’s early friendship — and maybe their one memorable song, as Sondheim hints by reworking it in a half-dozen variations throughout the show. The finale song, “Our Time,” is an anthem of innocent ambition, a promise of great things going to be: “Years from now, / We’ll remember and we’ll come back, / Buy the rooftop and hang a plaque: / ‘This is where we began, / Being what we can’.” On its face one of Sondheim’s simplest, most hopeful ballads, it is given an arsenic twist because we know how dreams turn to dust.

The 1981 show ended in the present; a 30-year remove naturally bathes the Vietnam and Me Decades in tart nostalgia. (A TV newswoman of 1973 announces that the Supreme Court has legalized abortion: “A longtime controversy has finally ended.”) And those of us who saw the 1981 Merrily — and did walk out, at the end, disappointed with the dramaturgy but humming the melodies — can feel that a troubled old friend has found his happy ending. Or beginning.

So hang a plaque on the City Center façade, for Merrily We Roll Along has become the very best it can be. If this Encores! production transfers to Broadway, as it should, count on it to be a palpable hit.