Merrily We Roll Along

NY City Center Encores - February 2011

Review by John Kenrick

Some shows just refuse to be liked, no matter how hard you try -- and no matter how much some sycophants rant about them.

Thirty one years ago, I was a college student attending a preview of the new musical Merrily We Roll Along at Broadway's Alvin (now Neil Simon) Theatre. I had already seen my share of failures, but I had never seen an audience react to one with such fury. After a decade-long string of innovative musicals that had included Company, Follies, Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd, audiences expected alot from composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director-producer Harold Prince. Sondheim's score for Merrily included several fine songs, including the jaunty "Old Friend" and the achingly beautiful ballads "Not a Day Goes By" and "Our Time." But the chronologically reversed libretto (running from the late 1970s back to 1957) was confusing, the staging did nothing to help, and the physical production (the cast wore t-shirts announcing who they were) looked cheap and downright ugly. The youthful cast of unknowns could offer no star power to distract from the show's shortcomings.

At the preview that I attended back in 1980, most audience members stuck out the intermission hoping things would improve, but by ten minutes into the second act, people were walking out in the dozens, with some shouting angrily that their time and money had been wasted -- yup, right in mid-performance. (Back then, most new shows discounted ticket prices during previews, but Merrily had charged full price -- now common practice, it seemed high-handed at the time.) Within days, the lead actor was replaced, and previews were extended. But when it finally opened, this mess of a musical was savaged by the critics and closed after two weeks.

Thanks to a superb cast recording, interest in the score grew. Sondheim and librettist George Furth (who died in 2008) continued to tinker with Merrily, eventually teaming with director James Lapine. For revivals at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse and Off-Broadway's York Theatre Company, they reshaped the book, made several changes to the score, and cast older, more experienced actors who could bring greater depth to their performances. But the preachy pseudo-Greek chorus commenting on the action, and the basic problem of a narrative running backwards still made for an emotionally unsatisfying experience, even in intimate presentations. Now Encores is offering New York theatregoers a chance to see the revised Merrily in a full-scale concert production, with the Jonathan Tunick expanding his magnificent original orchestrations to include the new songs. Box office sales were so strong that they have added an additional week of performances, and this limited run has become one of the hottest events in a season that has been rather short on exciting musical theatre.

When it comes to the score, the Encores production of Merrily gives ample cause to cheer. Everything is beautifully sung, and conductor Rob Berman and his amazing orchestra make this score sound better than ever. But I fear that no amount of revision will ever make this ill-focused libretto work. High tech projections help clarify the flow of events and relationships somewhat, but that flow carries an almost relentless flow of cynicism, anger and bitterness for most of the evening. Then midway through the second act, three characters scamper though a witty 1960s-style cabaret revue sequence, and wow -- as if out of nowhere, we discover that these depressing, unhappy and until now unappealing characters were actually likeable way back when. Unfortunately, by this point, most theatre-goers will have long since given up caring, just as they did back in 1981.

This does not apply to Sondheimites, those hopelessly rabid fans who think anything with a Sondheim score is a masterwork, no matter how flawed. These pathetic creatures scream their approval of every number regardless of how empty the show surrounding it may be. The Sondheimites were much in evidence at the Encores performance I attended, and if you share their blind worship of this admittedly brilliant man's admittedly brilliant work, you too may be able to overlook the unfixable flaws that make Merrily so unsatisfying for mere mortals. And truth be told, when the ensemble ends the show with a soaring choral rendition of the moving "Our Time," even mere mortals like me can be moved by a glimpse of something beautiful, lasting and divine.

But even the wildest devotees will find it hard to overlook some rather questionable casting decisions. In the central role of composer Franklin Shepard, who sells out his friends and himself in the name of greed, Colin Donnell is easy on the eyes, has a fine baritone voice, and even plays piano capably, but his acting palette consists entirely of smiles, blank stares and flashes of anger, with almost no emotional gradations in between. As a result he leaves this show with a lead impossible to care about. As Frank's disheartened writing partner Charley, Lin-Manuel Miranda sings well, but his limitations as an actor make his character equally unsympathetic. And since the talented Celia Keenan-Bolger is surprisingly unable to make the frustrated alcoholic Mary come alive, the trio of friends at the heart of Merrily have no emotional spark. The lovely Elizabeth Stanley plays man-eating actress Gussie Carnegie with a relentlessly cartoonish one-dimensional broadness that I found totally inappropriate. These performers may all be suffering from too little rehearsal time -- although there was apparently enough prep time for them to perform almost the entire concert with no scripts in hand. But two members of the cast do rise manage above the surrounding muddle. As Charley's first wife Mary, Betsy Wolfe gives a heartfelt and thoroughly winning performance, and delivers "Not a Day Goes By" with raw power. Adam Grupper is both funny and appealing as producer Joe Josephson, winning laughs and genuine sympathy.

Kudos to director James Lapine and his production team for doing so much to make this one-winged bird of a show take flight. I do not believe that anyone anywhere will ever make Merrily We Roll Along a great musical. But its Sondheim score contains more treasure than you'll find in all the new scores in any number of recent Broadway seasons. And Encores gives this material the smoothest and highest quality presentation it has yet received. Fans of the musical theatre are advised to get down to City Center ASAP, because it is a sure bet that those who care will be talking about this production for many years to come.

So what if I never really manage to like Merrily We Roll Along? I can still tremble with joy at hearing a score that soars miles above the garbage that wins Tonys nowadays.

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