Ever since its massive flop on Broadway in 1981 (52 previews; 16 performances), Merrily We Roll Along (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, and original direction by Hal Prince), has refused to die, or like old generals, simply fade away. Sondheim is such a gigantic figure in modern musical theatre history that even his lesser efforts inspire legions of fanboys and fangirls, and every fan-gender in between, to shout for their revival. None more so than Merrily, whose checkered history has made it a cult favorite.The show, with its numerous national and international revivals, has undergone multiple tweaks to the book and score. New York alone has seen a well-received Encores! rendition in 2012, an Off-Broadway version at the York in 1994, and, now, a modestly successful, greatly scaled-down, Off-Broadway revival directed by Noah Brody for the Fiasco Theater at the Laura Pels Theatre, under the aegis of the Roundabout Theatre Company. This, I must confess, is my first experience of the show, so I won’t compare it to any of its predecessors.
Fiasco—whose critically praised revival of Into the Woods at this same venue in 2015 I missed—has gained a quality reputation for its original rethinking of established material, as in their Two Gentlemen of Verona (2015), so it’s no surprise that they’d take an unconventional approach to Merrily. Most radically, they've reduced the company from over two dozen in the 1981 show to a minuscule six, three of them playing two or three roles, with many minor characters gone with the wind. Surprisingly, the concept mostly works, although there are several confusing moments when it doesn’t.
Sondheim, by the way, offered his help and support during the show’s creative process.
Merrily We Roll Along is a very loose adaptation of a well-received 1934 comedy-drama by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart that ran for 155 performances and was certainly not the “flop” Martin Gottfried calls it in his More Broadway Musicals. While remaining a story about theatre figures, the musical version covers the years 1980-1957 instead of 1934-1916, changes the characters' names, alters their artistic occupations (for example, the original’s playwright, Richard, becomes Frank, a composer), uses different locales, and takes many other liberties. Interestingly, some lines from the original have been inserted into the Fiasco version.
But, while using a roughly similar storyline, it maintains Kaufman and Hart’s most significant innovation, showing us two decades in the lives of its characters in reverse chronological order.
Such reverse-order plotting, which begins with the end result of the characters’ trajectory and then returns to the events that led to it, has become more familiar over the years, as in plays like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. In 1934, it was considered quite experimental for a play, in spite of its increasing familiarity in movie flashbacks. Burns Mantle, who chose the Kaufman-Hart play as one of the 10 best of the 1934-1935 season, wrote:
There have been dream plays in which the sleeper’s consciousness was projected through past experiences, or through fantastic imaginings. But even the recovered story employing the flashback screen method, as did Elmer Rice’s On Trial, had their beginnings in the present and came back in the end to their starting point, as by the rules of musical composition, a song or a symphony must end on the key in which it has begun.
Sondheim and Furth, however, cheat a bit by adding a prologue of sorts, set in 1980, in which we briefly meet the three core characters. These are Franklin Shepard (Ben Steinfeld), a composer turned movie producer, whose marriage is on the rocks; Charley Kringas (Manu Narayan), a playwright/lyricist now in therapy, and Mary Flynn (Jessie Austrian), a wise-cracking, alcoholic novelist turned critic (whose 1934 original was inspired by Dorothy Parker). Each gives a capsule account of how, regardless of their apparent success, they’ve become disillusioned, personally and professionally, concluding with each reciting, “If I could go back to the beginning.”
The script then takes us to a coke-snorting, booze-swilling, Hollywood party at the home of Frank, who’s sold out on the ideals of his youth to become a mediocre but rich movie producer. His wife, Gussie Carnegie (Emily Young), an aging Broadway star unhappy she’s not in Frank’s new movie, is disgusted that instead of her, it stars Frank’s young mistress, Meg (Brittany Bradford, who also plays Frank's first wife, Beth).
As the play slips further back into the past, we discover the background to the tragic culmination of Frank and Gussie’s aspirations via scenes involving the dissolution of Frank’s partnership with Charley, his musical theatre collaborator. Although the men have written highly profitable Broadway musicals, Charley feels betrayed when Frank’s grasping for money and fame leads him to abandon his artistic ambitions.
Time keeps sliding past, each year announced by a character, as we watch the highly promising careers and professional and personal friendships of Charley, Frank, and Mary fall apart, develop, and begin, in that order, with the final scene set in 1957, when Mary first meets the fellows on the rooftop of a building in which they all live.
Obviously, showing the events in this backward order emphasizes the irony implicit in the evolution of their lives. It also maps the difficult path of collaboration and friendship, not to speak of the conflict between personal ideals and the pragmatism of reality, a theme that would have had particular resonance during the Depression, when the original was born.
Despite a lively pace that keeps things rolling for an intermissionless hour and 45 minutes, proficient staging, and nimble and creative choreography by Lorin Latarro (for actors who move well but aren’t dancers), nothing can disguise the thinness of the characters. Each has one or two dominant traits that vary little through the evening.
And, while it’s obvious how business issues drive a career-influencing wedge between Charley and Frank, Mary’s carrying a torch for Frank (quickly mentioned in passing) is never explored as a reason for her post-bestseller writing career to have tanked. Overall, the characters have such solipsistic, charmless personalities that cheering or sympathizing with them is barely an option.
None of the performances, despite their technical adeptness by players who seem to be more actor-singers than singer-actors, possess the magical appeal that suggests future stardom. Steinfeld, in particular, is miscast as a leading man, and Young’s Gussie lacks the diva-like glamour the part demands.
Technically, the individual numbers are worthy of applause, several demonstrating virtuosic mastery of Sondheim’s extremely difficult verbal demands. The one that sticks most in mind is Narayan’s performance of Charley’s ultra-complex “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” which is probably an eternal show-stopper.
Sondheim’s tricky score, which contains such perpetually listenable numbers as “Old Friends,” and, perhaps the show’s most oft-recorded melody, “Not a Day Goes By,” is filled with dazzling lyrics, which the company renders with aplomb.
Sondheim’s tunes are written to express they lyrics, which they do in devilishly clever ways. There’s even a scene where Sondheim, obviously citing his own experience, has a producer urge Frank to write songs the audience can hum. As this production, orchestrated by Alexander Gemignani, and performed by an eight-member orchestra, makes clear, though, Sondheim’s melodies may not be conventional but they catch your ear and, with each listening, grow increasingly habit-forming. Which isn’t to deny that some aren’t top-drawer Sondheim.
Brody’s production takes place within Derek McLane’s beautifully designed vision of a prop master's paradise, with tiers of shelving curving across the stage, holding neatly packed assortments of all sorts of things for potential theatrical use. A large upstage separation suggests either a concrete wall or a background for scenic effects, like a shimmering curtain. There also are alcoves for the actors to sit in and watch from when not in a scene. Furnishings, of course, are shifted swiftly by the cast itself. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting distinguishes one locale from the other, regardless of the general lack of familiar markers.
Paloma Young and Ashley Rose Horton’s costumes are attractive but, regardless of the many changes, seem relatively period-neutral rather than making a big effort to stress fashion differences. For a story emphasizing time differences, the lack of more distinct, perhaps mildly satirical, fashion differences is a drawback. The same is true for hair, male as well as female; you won’t, for example, see mustaches, beards, and sideburns come and go.
Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane) hit the nail on the head when trying to assess why even those who liked the original play had trouble sympathizing with it. His words describe the play, not the musical, but are still worth quoting:
Here’s this playwright who writes a play and it’s a big success. Then he writes another play and it’s a big hit, too. All his plays are big successes. All the actresses in them are in love with him, and he has a yacht and beautiful home in the country. He has a beautiful wife and two beautiful children, and he makes a million dollars. Now the problem the play propounds is this: How did the poor son of a bitch ever get in this jam. (Quoted in Scott Meredith’s George S. Kaufman and His Friends.)
Laura Pels Theatre: Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 W. 46th St., NYC
Through April 7