A timeworn opera legend finds the tenor preening following his big aria, the audience demanding an encore. He obliges. They demand again, and then again. Finally, he calls out from the stage, “How many times are you going to make me sing this?” Comes a shout from the house: “Until you get it right!”
So many directors, along with Stephen Sondheim himself, have tried to get Merrily We Roll Along right. And we the faithful return, hoping that this time it will all come together like, well you know, like old friends. And hooray, the revival that has opened at the Roundabout’s cozy Laura Pels Theatre is simply exhilarating. A monumental achievement on an intimate scale, it should finally, and firmly, place the 1981 Merrily in the firmament of era-defining musicals between A Chorus Line and Rent (though it is, to be sure, better than both of those great shows).
Why? That’s easy. Unheralded when Harold Prince’s confusing production opened at the Alvin (now the Neil Simon) Theatre, and ignominiously shuttered after just 16 performances, Merrily is not some forgivable misstep by our greatest composer/lyricist, but ranks among his most outstanding scores. Its songs have had rich lives beyond the show itself, from the nearly unbearable optimism of “Our Time” to the torchy anguish of “Not a Day Goes By” to the knowing intimacy of “Old Friends” (“Good friends point out your lies / whereas old friends live and let live / Good friends like and advise / whereas old friends love and forgive”).
Equally important, Merrily, based on George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1934 play of the same name, tells a universally accessible (perhaps uniquely American) tale of youthful friendship and lofty goals corrupted and ultimately ruined by commercial success. Sondheim and his Company book writer George Furth moved the play’s 25-year span up from its post-World War I beginning to an era that began with the launch of Sputnik and ends in the couture-touting, Chardonnay-toasting, yacht-yakking greed decade of the late 1970s, amid the human wreckage of those poor souls uninvited to the louche party.
The gimmick, with both the Kaufman and Hart play and the Sondheim and Furth musical, was in telling the story mostly in reverse chronology, beginning at the sour denouement and ending in the glow of youthful, sky’s-the-limit (or, in the case of the update, sky’s-not-the-limit) hopefulness. Call me fusty, but that choice always struck me as bizarre. There’s a reason stories have a beginning, middle and end, a formula one violates at one’s peril. Every iteration of Merrily has struggled with that essential problem.
The current revival, by the Roundabout’s ingenious company-in-residence, Fiasco Theatre, has almost completely solved that issue by minimizing the book, sensitively tapping into the source material and, above all, casting a quartet of actors who seem born to their roles: Ben Steinfeld as Frank, the lefty composer turned powerful Hollywood schlockmeister; Jessie Austrian as Mary, the once-promising novelist who douses the torch she carries for Frank in a lifetime of booze and self-loathing; Manu Narayan as Charley, the writing partner Frank abandoned on the road to riches; and Emily Young as Gussie, the trophy wife Frank accouters himself with while scamping around town.
These four, accompanied by Brittany Bradford and Paul L. Coffey (all of them playing multiple roles), fit so smoothly together that the ensemble becomes a single storytelling organism, complete in its hold on our attention and its pull at the emotional viscera. Staged by Noah Brody and choreographer Lorin Latarro with a unifying looseness and verve, the show swiftly traverses its long single act on Derek McLane’s astonishing set, a Joseph Cornell box on acid, with compartments suggesting backstage chaos and glamour, flashing APPLAUSE lights and even, in-joke of in-jokes, a glowing ALVIN theater sign.
Adding to the sense of closure and achievement are the music direction and terrific arrangements by Alexander Gemignani, whose father Paul served that role in all of the Sondheim-Prince collaborations. The scoring for eight musicians allows every song its spotlight – including my favorite, which may be the most underappreciated number in the score, but which to me gets to the true nostalgia behind Merrily We Roll Along and Sondheim’s deepest sense of loss.
It comes almost as a toss off near the end of the show, when Frank, Charley, Mary and their friend Beth are performing in a Greenwich Village café at the start of their careers at the advent of the 1960s. “Bobbie and Jackie and Jack” is Sondheim on top of his pastiche game, an Irish jig whose lyric thills to the ascent of the Kennedys and their promise of “bringing back style to the White House.”
“I’ll get Leontyne Price to sing her / Medley from ‘Meistersinger’” Jackie sings. Oh, for the days.