Review - Merrily We Roll Along: Back To Before

The original Broadway cast album of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along is one of those handful of recordings - like Mack and Mabel and Candide - that a musical theatre lover can listen to hundreds of times without hearing a clue as to why the show flopped. The quick answer, and usually the most unfair one, is "the book." More often, though, the more complete answer is ambition.

For every perfectly pleasant and innocuously enjoyable show that has won the Tony Award for Best Musical, there is probably at least one other show with recognizably superior components that quickly closed because the sum of its parts couldn't match the ambitions of its creators. Back in 1981, I was one of those who caught a preview of Merrily We Roll Along and found it to be, for multiple reasons, a mess. But shortly after the conclusion of its 16-peformance run, the original Broadway cast album was released and much of the theatre community came to recognize that trapped in a production that wasn't working was a score that contained some serious brilliance.

And so Merrily We Roll Along has gone through decades of tinkering, beginning with a 1985 revision directed by James Lapine, who mounts the new Encores! staged concert. And while this version remains a troubled musical, its material can be considered vastly superior to most of the new ones that make it to Broadway these days, and the opportunity to hear a 23 piece orchestra playing Jonathan Tunick's dynamic orchestrations for Sondheim's catchiest score makes this a major musical theatre event.

Merrily gets its name and basic structure from a short-running Kaufman and Hart straight play from 1934, concerning characters who appear to be thinly-veiled stand-ins for Kaufman's Algonquin Round Table buddies, a group that were collectively the talk of the town in the 1920s, but who many considered as has-beens who wasted their potential for greatness in the decade that followed. As penned by Kaufman and Hart, a successful playwright (perhaps patterned after Robert Benchley, who made a cozy living doing short subjects in Hollywood) has reached the age of 40 achieving great success writing flimsy formula comedies. His close friend, a wise-cracking novelist (definitely based on Dorothy Parker) has been driven to drink by his romantic disinterest in her, though she has the support of their mutual friend, a painter (Alexander Woollcott?).

The play began in the then-present 1934, with each scene shuffling back a few years until the bitter, unlikable gent of 40 ends the evening as a 22-year-old college graduate looking starry-eyed at the potential of his future. It was director Harold Prince's idea to cast a musical version of the play with a young, inexperienced company of actors playing roles spanning the years from 1980 back to 1957; beginning with a financially successful but artistically numb Broadway composer turned film producer named Franklin Shepard giving a speech to the graduating class of his old high school about the realities of life and the need to make compromises. In the title song, which is reprised throughout the show, the chorus of graduating seniors sings of sticking to your dreams and enjoying the unpredictable bends in the road as you stay true to your goals. Meanwhile, we see Franklin make life decisions that alienate his two best friends, Mary (still a novelist who loves him) and Charley (his bookwriter/lyricist partner), while cheating on his wife with a woman who can advance his career.

In the Lapine version, the kids are axed in favor of a company of actors who appear in their 30s and 40s, playing a non-specific chorus singing the same sentiments. The naïve optimism of the lyric seems a bit awkward when voiced by more seasoned adults, but the words are now upstaged by a series of projections and film clips by Wendell K. Harrington that not only give us a chronological sense of the story, but also help us see where these fictional characters stood in American pop culture. We see appearances with Dick Cavett, political activism with John and Yoko and magazine spreads with photos that are reminiscent of other true-to-life shots.

Whether it's optimistic graduates or flashback memories, the attempt seems to be to give the audience some emotional connection to the trio as we see them play out some ugly situations in the early scenes. The knock on Merrily has always been that there's no empathy for the main characters. Actually, there's plenty of empathy; all of it occurring during the last quarter of the show.

Every musical needs a song early in the story that makes you care about what happens, and Merrily We Roll Along has an outstanding one in "Our Time," which is used in a scene that has Franklin, Charley and Mary meeting on a rooftop to see the Soviet space capsule Sputnik cross the evening sky. As they watch in amazement at this wonder of humankind, they sing with conviction that they're, "the names in tomorrow's papers," ready to show the world what they've got. It's an uplifting sentiment that most anyone who has, or has had, youthful ambition can relate to, but although the song is sung at the beginning of the story, it's the final scene of the musical.

Following "Our Time" chronologically, but preceding it in the show, is a dazzlingly complex musical scene, "Opening Doors," which takes us through the early, struggling years where Franklin and Charley work on their musical while Mary avoids working on her book; the three of them juggling their art, their day jobs and their lovers until, frustrated by continual rejections, they get the idea to put on the clever Greenwich Village revue that would turn them from total unknowns to sorta popular with a certain hip downtown niche. It's an exhilarating piece that builds excitement for what's going to happen next.

But what happens next already happened first. The musical begins with a scene where Franklin, a successful film producer, is celebrating the opening of his new Hollywood blockbuster. Mary, a depressed lush who could never follow up on the success of her first book, wisecracks her way through the crowd of phonies, giving her honest opinion of both the movie and the way Franklin has destroyed his family. Soon after, we're introduced to Charley, who feels betrayed by Franklin for his continued refusal to begin work on a new, politically-minded musical in favor of more profitable ventures. The scene contains another brilliant piece of writing, "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," a musical patter monologue where Charley admonishes his partner on a live television broadcast for choosing money over achieving his artistic potential.

Perhaps Merrily We Roll Along is a musical best seen at least twice, allowing viewers to have more sympathy for the characters we meet in act one because of the affection we know we'll have for them in act two. Also, Sondheim and Furth's complete commitment to telling the story backwards means that many clever moments go unrecognized because we've yet to see their set-ups. For example, in one scene we see Joe, who produces Franklin and Charley's first Broadway hit, uncontrollably singing along to a catchy tune the boys are playing. The moment is only funny if you know that later in the show, but chronologically earlier in the story, Joe will complain that the song, when he hears it at a faster tempo with a different lyric, just isn't hummable.

That song, by the way, which begins in the story as the jaunty love tune, "Who Wants To Live In New York?" and then is revised into the gorgeous bittersweet ballad, "Good Thing Going," is part of another backwards joke; we first hear it as part of a glitzy, razzle-dazzle production number performed by Gussie, the Broadway star who cheats on Joe with Franklin.

The score's big dramatic ballad, the soaring torcher, "Not A Day Goes By," is given to Beth, the young actress who divorces Franklin in act one after discovering his infidelity. The unusual thing about the placement of the song, and of the grand finish Tunick gives the orchestration, is that the character has only been on stage for a few minutes. We barely know her and now she has a huge emotional moment. But the fact is that this, as far as the story goes, this is her exit music. In the scenes that follow we'll see how she goes from being an innocent in love to a woman who feels she must deny her remaining feelings for the man who betrayed her.

It's a tough moment to play such a short time after making your first entrance, but Betsy Wolfe delivers a warm and sensitive turn. Lapine's staging is pretty simple throughout the evening, which is understandable considering the short rehearsal period used to put these concerts together, but the fine character work throughout keeps the evening ticking. As Franklin and Gussie, the two most opportunistic ladder-climbers in the piece, Colin Donnell and Elizabeth Stanley each manage to covey the nicer qualities of their characters and we see them as talented, struggling youngsters who get seduced by fame. Adam Grupper's Joe is a funny, sweetheart of a mogul with a constant eye on the box office and no time for art.

Charley is known to be played as a bit of a hyper New York neurotic, but Lin-Manuel Miranda's take is more thoughtful and controlled. The revised script and projections paint him as a political activist and Miranda's serious manner during "Franklin Shepard, Inc." leaves the impression that his outburst is a deliberate act of protest.

Though certainly an adult, Celia Keenan-Bolger is an actress who frequently projects adolescent qualities. This makes her Mary unusual, but still very effective as she spits out the Parker-ish wit in a slightly overplayed manner, like a precocious girl trying to prove herself to be a woman. She's the smartest person in the room who is looked upon as a child by her peers, which sinks her into depression until her barbs lose their sting and just become nasty.

"Don't be so clever," Charley and Franklin are told by Broadway producers looking for their next hit, so it's appropriate that Merrily We Roll Along, despite being well admired among Sondheim fans and having a score that contains two songs - "Good Thing Going" and "Not A Day Goes By" - regarded by connoisseurs as American Songbook standards, might be too clever to ever be a Broadway hit.

Oh, what those tourists are missing.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Celia Keenan-Bolger, Colin Donnell and Lin-Manuel Miranda; Bottom: Elizabeth Stanley and Company.

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"When you end a successful sitcom, the most sensible thing to do is go back to the theater."

-- John Lithgow

The grosses are out for the week ending 2/12/2012 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.

Up for the week was: WICKED (6.9%), MARY POPPINS (6.3%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (5.3%), THE LION KING (4.0%), ROCK OF AGES (1.4%),

Down for the week was: PORGY AND BESS (-15.0%), STICK FLY (-11.9%), SEMINAR (-8.8%), SISTER ACT (-8.5%), THE ROAD TO MECCA (-8.1%), MEMPHIS (-8.0%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-6.9%), ANYTHING GOES (-5.8%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (-4.3%), MAMMA MIA! (-4.2%), CHICAGO (-4.2%), WAR HORSE (-4.2%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (-3.9%), WIT (-3.8%), JERSEY BOYS (-3.4%), GODSPELL (-2.6%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (-1.3%),

Given its pedigree as a Pulitzer winner that swept every playwriting award an Off-Broadway entry could win during its premiere run in 1997, you would think that Paula Vogel's How I Learned To Drive would follow the lead of other Off-Broadway successes like Driving Miss Daisy, Steel Magnolias and, most recently, Wit, and return to New York in a Broadway production.

Well, Second Stage's fine new mounting by Kate Whoriskey certainly boasts a Broadway star in Norbert Leo Butz. And the recognizable television/film name quota is satisfied by the presence of Elizabeth Reaser (also an experienced stage actress), but perhaps Broadway isn't quite ready for a drama (with quite a bit of comedy) about the relationship between an underage girl and her pedophile uncle that doesn't make him completely a villain and her completely a victim.

Told in a series of memory scenes that jump back and forth chronologically, the story is narrated by Li'l Bit (Reaser), recalling her years in 1960s Maryland as an early-developing girl in a sexually repressed household that makes her feel humiliated for her large breasts.

Kevin Cahoon and Marnie Schulenburg, who each play multiple roles, are both funny and horrifying as her grandparents; a child bride who believes the female orgasm is a lie and her vulgar, sexist husband. Jennifer Regan doubles as Li'l Bit's Aunt Mary, who is loyal to her husband, Peck (Butz), despite knowing there's something wrong with him, and her mother, who doubts the innocence of her adolescent daughter.

By comparison, Peck can seem very much the cool grown-up, particularly as played by Butz with a soothing drawl and an easy going, respectful manner. (He seems the sturdy role model in a monologue dramatizing a fishing lesson he gives his young nephew, an unseen character.) In teaching Li'l Bit how to drive he's offering her an escape from the embarrassment of home life and a chance to feel in control. He's the only family member who encourages her to go to college and even introduces her to sophisticated things like dinners in fancy seafood restaurants where the staff is lax about allowing young ladies to sample martinis. (Accenting this episode is a hilarious turn by Regan, lecturing the audience on proper cocktail behavior for ladies.) While Li'l Bit is certainly in a vulnerable position, she's precocious enough to believe she can be in control, especially as she nears the age of consent.

In telling her story, Reaser presents a Li'l Bit who is staying firmly in the present, unwilling to bring herself back too closely to her childhood self. This makes determining her age in different scenes a bit tricky, but is an understandable defense mechanism. Given the subject matter, the production is surprisingly unemotional; the cold acceptance of the events providing the requisite discomfort.

Photo of Elizabeth Reaser and Norbert Leo Butz by Joan Marcus.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

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