It appears to be the season for resurrecting troubled Stephen Sondheim musicals (see: the sensational Broadway revival of Follies, which ended its limited run last month and moves in May to L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre). So there couldn’t be a better time for City Center’s Encores! — the high-profile, elaborately staged concert series that launched the still-running Chicago and the Patti LuPone Gypsy revival — to bring back the rarely produced Merrily We Roll Along. Even if it’s only through Feb. 19, for 15 shows — heck, that’s almost as many as the original 1981 Broadway production. (For the record, the show’s first run played a colossally disappointing 16 performances, excluding previews.)
Plot-wise, Merrily is perhaps Sondheim’s simplest show. Playwright Charley Kringas (Lin-Manuel Miranda), composer Franklin Shepard (Colin Donnell), and writer Mary Flynn (Celia Keenan-Bolger) look back on their friendship. But there’s a twist. The show moves backward: not in flashbacks, but entirely in reverse. The first scene is set in 1976, when the three are estranged, bitter, barely speaking, and successful — and then drifts back to 1957, when they’re idealistic, broke, full-of-life starving artists. (Yes, Merrily fans: This production starts in 1976 since it uses a revised script that ditches the graduation-scene beginning, set in 1981.)
Director and frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine (Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park With George) smartly resurrects a concept he employed in the 1985 La Jolla Playhouse revival: flipping through a visual scrapbook — photos, newspaper clippings, magazine covers — from beginning to end during the opening number. (The clever projections are by Wendall K. Harrington; my personal favorite may be the wacky Life magazine cover asking: ”Are Kringas & Flynn the next Rodgers & Hammerstein?”) Lapine also uses the projections to transition between scenes; as the years scroll backward to the title tune — ”Yesterday is done, see the pretty countryside, merrily we roll along, roll along…” — so do the pages. (The fake snapshots can, occasionally, be a bit jarring. Franklin with Yoko Ono?!?)
Despite this pictorial CliffsNotes of the characters’ history, it takes too long, scene- and song-wise, to get to identify with the principals. Within the first 20 minutes or so, we learn Franklin is a serial adulterer who’s sold out to Hollywood and jilted his best friend and collaborator — he’s not the most sympathetic leading man. Similarly, it’s tough to sit through six verses of Mary wondering ”Why can’t it be like it was?” when we have no idea what ”like it was” was.
But in act two, when the dots are connected, the payoff is oh-so-sweet! (Warning: There are at least three genuine lump-in-the-throat if not complete tear-jerking numbers.) And as the characters become more fully drawn, the actors’ performances deepen. Keenan-Bolger plays very much against type as the boisterous drunk Mary in the first scene — and her pyramid-perm wig does her no favors — but she’s far more endearing, and convincing, as a struggling novelist hopelessly (and wordlessly) in love with Franklin. Similarly, Miranda, the Tony-winning writer-creator and star of In the Heights, is a little awkward in his ’70s ‘do and leisure suit; not surprisingly, the role of a struggling songwriter fits him far better. And Donnell (a.k.a. Anything Goes’ resident dreamboat) manages to find a very appealing naivete in the young Franklin — particularly opposite the lovely Betsy Wolfe, as his fellow revue performer turned first wife, Beth.
New York City hasn’t seen Merrily since 1994, and for musical-theater (and Sondheim) aficionados, this is a don’t-miss: Who knows when you’ll have another chance to hear this score, with Jonathan Tunick’s beautifully brassy orchestrations, played by 23 musicians? Seriously: 23 musicians! Gods of the theater, smile on us and bless us with a cast recording. And, perhaps, another Lapine production: As he says in his bio, ”Yesterday is apparently not done.” B
(Tickets: NYCityCenter.org or 212-581-1212)