There have been quite a few musicals over the years that just kind of break your heart. Usually, these shows sound great on their cast recordings and make you wonder how, despite such terrific scores, they simply didn't work in the theater. Mack and Mabel is among these shows, as are Chess, Candide, and The Baker's Wife. All have truly remarkable scores, but theatrical productions of these shows have been problematic at best.
Another trait these heartbreaker shows share is that their creators, as well as other people, seem to continually come back to try anew to make them work. Sometimes these efforts are successful, as was the case with the recent Mary Zimmerman production of Candide. (Read my review.) Other times, we get [shudder] the most recent concert version of Chess. (Read my review.)
Of course, Stephen Sondheim has more than his share of heartbreakers. There's Anyone Can Whistle, of course, and Follies. But my personal favorite has always been Merrily We Roll Along, which is probably due to the fact that the cast recording came out while I was in high school and just starting to develop what has become a life-long obsession with musical theater in general and Stephen Sondheim in particular.
And Merrily more than fits within the heartbreaker category, not merely because it was a notorious flop in its initial Broadway engagement, but also because Sondheim and company have continually returned to the show to tinker and futz and try to fashion a stage version of the show that even comes close to the raw emotion, searing intellect, and palpable regret of Sondheim's score.
Which is why I was so excited to hear that Encores would be presenting Merrily as part of its current season. And I wasn't he only one excited. Anticipation was so high for the concert presentation of Merrily that the folks at Encores added a second weekend of shows, which I believe is unprecedented for Encores. There has been much speculation in the social-media-sphere that the Encores engagement might serve as a launching pad for a Broadway revival for the show. No word yet on whether any such Broadway transfer will materialize.
Stephen Sondheim has said that this particular version of Merrily We Roll Along, which incorporates revisions from a number of productions subsequent to the show's Broadway run, is the one that he's the most satisfied with. Merrily librettist George Furth passed away in 2008, so director James Lapine provided the concert adaptation for this version of the show. The result, I'm happy to report, was a libretto that is more efficient and effective than any previous version, bringing out more credible drama and complex emotion.
One problem with Merrily has always been that the characters seemed more like placeholders than real people. The central character of Franklin Shepard, in particular, has always felt more like a cypher than a flesh-and-blood human being. Casting the fresh and engaging Colin Donnell as Frank certainly went a long way toward making the character more sympathetic. Donnell, who's currently appearing as Billy Crocker in the hit revival of Anything Goes, has a comfortable stage presence and a laser-sharp singing voice, and managed to turn Frank from a cardboard villain into a believably flawed human being.
Equally appealing was Celia Keenan-Bolger as Mary Flynn. Frankly, when I heard that she had been cast as Mary, I was skeptical. The part seemed to require more of a whiskey-soaked, world-weary countenance than I had seen from her before, but she brought a spunky freshness to the role, while still evincing the jaded quality the part requires.
The major hole in the cast for me was Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charley Kringas. Based on his performance in In the Heights, I just didn't see him as the uptight, nebbishy Kringas. And whereas Celia Keenan-Bolger defied my expectations, Miranda merely confirmed them. His "Franklin Shepard, Inc." was forced, breathless, and contained numerous lyric flubs. What's more, his intonation was significantly off throughout the show. When Miranda was singing the second-act "Good Thing Going," Colin Donnell joined him less than halfway through the song. Sure, it would make sense that composer Frank would join lyricist Charley as they present their new song at a party thrown by the future star of their show, but it really seemed that Donnell joined Miranda because the latter couldn't handle the vocals on his own.
Overall, James Lapine's direction for this Merrily was taut and efficient, but the show started with a significantly unfocused opening number. As you may know, Merrily We Roll Along, much like the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart upon which it is based, travels backwards in time, starting with the final dissolution of the relationship between Frank and his two old friends Mary and Charley, and ends with their optimistic introduction some twenty years prior. This reverse construction has famously confused audiences since the musical premiered in 1981, and Lapine seemed to be making a concerted effort to solve this problem once and for all.
As many New York theatrical productions do these days, this Merrily features liberal use of digital projections, including an extended reverse-chronological montage during the opening sequence. It's as if the creators are impatiently saying, "Get it? The show goes backwards. Now can we just move on and watch the god-damned show?" Fortunately, the projections, as well as the ham-handed presentation style, fade into the background as the show actually gets going.
What really struck me as I sat watching this Merrily is how intensely moving the score is in context. Quite a few of the show's numbers have made their way into cabaret shows, revues, and the rep books of musical-theater folks the world over. But it was striking to me how powerful, for instance, "Not a Day Goes By" can be in the context of the show, particularly as rendered here by Betsy Wolfe as Frank's wronged first wife Beth. Even more devastating was the song's reprise, which is sung by Beth and Frank, but also by Mary, who watches helplessly as the man she so desperately loves marries another woman. The staging for this scene was a bit static, but the moment itself was stunning.
It may be because the original cast recording is so imprinted upon my consciousness, but I have never really warmed up to Sondheim's changes to the score, particularly "That Frank," which to me pales next to the original "Rich and Happy." And "Growing Up," although it features an interesting use of the "Good Thing Going" motif, is rather inert and virtually tuneless.
As I sat watching the show, I initially found myself in analytical mode, trying to figure out why the show has never worked and guage whether it was was coming closer to working this time. But, late in the second act, I found my analytical impulses receding in the face of the sheer power of the score, the characters, the performances, and my 30-plus years of fascination and affection for this show. It's funny: just as I began to write in my notebook how the show's central conceit was intellectually interesting but emotionally hollow, the first chords of "Our Time," the show's final number, began, and I became overwhelmed with emotion.
Maybe Merrily We Roll Along works after all.