I once thought of teaching a class on (or writing a book about) the handful of cult musicals that, in spite of their well-acknowledged structural flaws and disappointing Broadway debuts, are passionately beloved by many, frequently revived and continually revised (in prolonged attempts to finally overcome those flaws and “fix” them once and for all), such as Candide, Merrily We Roll Along, Chess, Camelot, and (to a lesser extent) Mack and Mabel, Rags, The Baker’s Wife and Allegro. Why do musical-theater junkies feel so protective of these titles – far more so than acknowledged hits?
The appeal of Merrily is multilayered. For an excellent portrait of the circumstances surrounding the disastrous 1981 original Broadway production, check out Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened, a wonderful 2016 documentary by director-actor Lonny Price (the original Charley Kringas) that can currently be streamed by Netflix subscribers. The original production’s preview period is remembered as chaotic for the cast and baffling for the creative team (Sondheim and Prince allegedly thought the show was in great shape during rehearsals). The many audience members who rejected it included theater fans and professionals who may have been aware of its underlying merits but were eager (in a schadenfreude sort of way) for an opportunity to knock Sondheim and Prince down a peg or two. After all, Prince and Sondheim had just created five brilliant and daring concept musicals in the 70s: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd. Those five musicals were probably the best things to come out of the 70s period. Sure, Sondheim and Prince achieved great things with other collaborators in the 80s and 90s, but what if their partnership had survived Merrily? To quote Merrily, it was a “good thing going, going, gone.”
Based on a little-remembered dramatic comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart (better known today for the freewheeling comedies The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can’t Take It With You), Merrily is (like Rodgers & Hammerstein’s flop Allegro, which Sondheim worked on as a teenage apprentice) a morality tale about the dangers of professional success, the phoniness of rich city hangers on, losing sight of one’s personal beliefs and goals, and losing control of one’s destiny due to being unassertive. Allegro has a sort of tacked-on happy ending where Joseph Taylor Jr., now a rich big-city doctor whose wife is openly cheating on him, decides to start over and return home, where he can help his father, a folksy doctor, build a local hospital and take care of their rural community. In Merrily, talented composer-turned-trashy movie producer Franklin Shepard does not get a happy ending – but the audience (sort of) gets a happy ending by traveling backwards in time, step by step, through Frank’s professional and personal life, until he and his best pals Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn are at their most innocent and idealistic.
As Merrily begins, Mary Flynn (who always loved Frank but lacked the courage to tell him so) is a best-selling author turned bitter alcoholic, and Frank is no longer on speaking terms with his former songwriting partner Charley Kringas, who refused to condone Frank’s relentless pursuit of financial success and constant delaying of their passion project, the political musical Take a Left. Scene by scene, watch what led to the dissolution of Frank’s marriage and ideals, his friendship with Charles, and Mary’s physical and emotional well-being. Eventually, Frank evolves back into a happy, innocent youth who believed that his songs could change the world. “Our Time,” the finale anthem of idealism, is ironically devastating given our knowledge of what lies ahead in the future. (I always find it ironic whenever I hear “Our Time” sung at a high school or college graduation. It’s like they’re saying, 25 years from now, you’ll all be washed up and miserable. Congratulations, kids!)
The score and script of Merrily have undergone significant changes since the 1981 Broadway premiere, mainly intended to make Frank more sympathetic and less of a jerk. However, the far bigger change has been the removal of the original concept of Prince (who has not been directly involved with any revival of Merrily) of having very young performers (in their teens to mid-twenties) play adults, until the characters they have been portraying become youths themselves by the show’s end. The general consensus is that Broadway audiences did not buy into youths playing adults (even though this is standard practice at high school and theater camp productions), and that the young actors were not up to the challenges of a complex and challenging new Sondheim show. Theatergoers were also reportedly confused over the backwards chronology.
Take a look at any of the photographs of the original production (which show the actors with sweatshirts proclaiming their status and relationship to each other, as well as an ugly set modeled after a high school gym) and you can easily see why it received such a vitriolic response. But thank god for the original cast album, recorded the day after the final performance. It is one of the most invigorating, most important cast albums of all time. Without it, Merrily probably would not have had a real future. Once it came out, people listened to its “kickass overture” (in the words of original cast member and soon-to-be TV star Jason Alexander), dynamic orchestrations, and absolutely brilliant, lyrically dexterous, emotionally raw songs. “Opening Doors,” which depicts Frank, Mary, and Charley struggling to make their mark yet breezing through life in the late 1950s, is like a one-act play in and of itself. “Franklin Shepard Inc.” is one of the most high-powered comedic solos ever written. And compare that to the deep wounds expressed with such directness and simplicity in “Not a Day Goes By.”
I did not see the original Broadway production of Merrily (although I have watched a bootleg video of it quite a few times). In fact, I had not yet been born. But the first production of Merrily I ever saw (at the theater camp French Woods in 2000) used the original script and score (probably without permission). And perhaps that is the reason I have always preferred the original version of Merrily over its subsequent revised versions. “That Frank,” which takes the place of “Rich and Happy,” is clunky and expository. The title song lacks context outside the original production, where it was sung by dreamy-eyed high school students in reaction to Frank’s condescending and snarky advice that they get real and think practically ASAP. And with the exception of the 2012 City Center Encores! production, productions of the revised Merrily tend to be scaled down, with a small cast and orchestra.
For years, it was assumed that the Roundabout Theatre Company would present the first Broadway revival of Merrily. After all, Roundabout is on course to revive every Sondheim property, having already presented Company, Assassins, Into the Woods, A Little Night Music (as a one-night concert with Natasha Richardson, right before her death), Follies, and Pacific Overtures – not to mention the bio revue Sondheim on Sondheim, which placed a particular emphasis on Merrily, as if to hint that a revival was on the way. However, the Roundabout revival was expected to be directed by James Lapine, who became Sondheim’s most vital collaborator in the wake of Merrily. For whatever reason, Lapine ended up directing Merrily instead at City Center. It was a terrific production. And while it did run a week longer than a typical Encores! production and received a cast album, it did not transfer to Broadway. Other prominent Merrily revivals in recent years have included an actor-musician version by John Doyle and Maria Friedman’s West End production (which was broadcast in movie theaters and made available for digital streaming).
I still assumed that Roundabout would get around to Merrily at some point. Perhaps it would end up being directed by Joe Mantello, Scott Ellis, Leigh Silverman, or Sam Gold. But at no point did I imagine that Fiasco, the small-knit classical theater ensemble that rose to prominence with its scaled-down, imaginative adaptation of Shakespeare’s late romance Cymbeline, would be entrusted with Merrily. I first encountered Fiasco in 2009, when Cymbeline was being staged at a small walk-up space in Tribeca – before it transferred to the Duke on 42nd Street and then the Barrow Street Theatre. Not long afterwards, Fiasco got a shot at tackling Into the Woods at New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre. I attended – and found it to be extremely poorly sung. But it did manage to snag a rave from the New York Times and eventually transfer to New York, produced by Roundabout at its midtown Off-Broadway space. On second viewing, I found that the cast had significantly improved vocally and I rather enjoyed it. Even so, Into the Woods (with its fairy tale characters and comic elements) was an ideal piece for Fiasco’s aesthetic. Could it really handle the score, storytelling, and complexities of Merrily?
With a cast of just six actors (joined by an eight-piece orchestra) and a reduced running time (without an intermission), this is the most scaled-down major revival of Merrily to date. It is certainly not the definitive Merrily (assuming there can ever be one). In terms of the long history of Merrily, this is a production that looks both forward (in continuing to experiment with the piece) and backward (looking back at its creative origins). In addition to incorporating some long-discarded content from the original Broadway production and even the 1934 play on which it is based, there is a presentational, informal and direct quality to the production that evokes Hal Prince’s original concept of youths engaging in role play and performing a moralistic drama in front of adults.
The production excised “That Frank” and put back in “Rich and Happy.” From what I hear, “The Hills of Tomorrow” (a high school graduation song that began and closed the original production) was used in previews but then removed. That being said, the production does open with Frank delivering a high school commencement. As one would expect due to the reduced orchestra, there is no overture.
Derek McLane’s set design is both literal and abstract, evoking a backstage area full of props, costumes and equipment, which will be used by the cast throughout the performance, including an old-fashioned television studio “applause” sign and rolling chairs (which are brilliantly utilized at one point to evoke feelings of speed and flying). Also present is a sign for the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre), home of the original production of Merrily.
Anyone familiar with the show will certainly miss its swinging orchestrations, and many scenes are vocally underpowered and under-populated. But on the whole, the production (directed by Noah Brody, co-artistic director of Fiasco) is theatrically effective, smart and (at its best) emotionally wrenching. Personally speaking, I walked into the production with a lot of hesitation, which I continued to have for the first 10 minutes or so, but I very quickly fell under its spell and found myself fully engaged and satisfied. In this cut-down form, an emphasis was placed on each and every error and mistaken decision on the part of not just Frank but his friends too.
Most critical to its success, the production brings to the forefront the three-way friendship of Frank, Mary and Charley (which makes it all the more devastating to watch its evolution and witness every crack in the foundation) and conveying the overwhelming insecurity of every character. Frank (often considered a jerk) is seen as well-meaning but too passive to stand up for himself, leading to his ultimate downfall.
Ben Steinfeld is not an especially charismatic Frank, so it is hard to see what compels all the other characters to him. That being said, there is a hesitant quality to his performance that shifts the emphasis to everyone around him and helps explain how they all end up walking all over him and either dictating his choices or criticizing them. His singing is barely passable. Needless to say, he got the role because he is part of the Fiasco ensemble – which is not necessarily a bad thing. You get the impression that the story is being told by a specific group of storytellers who know and trust each other.
Manu Narayan (recently of My Fair Lady and Gettin’ the Band Back Together) was a surprise choice for Charley. If it were up to me, I’d give the role to Josh Grisetti (Enter Laughing, Something Rotten!). However, Narayan gives an individualized take on the role that is less nebbish than usual and burning with self-righteous attitude and absolutist, unforgiving anger. For the first time in any production of Merrily, I felt that Charley deserved a share of blame for Frank’s ultimate demise. After all, didn’t Charley make some ill-considered decisions himself? Jessie Austrian is alternatively nasty and quirky as Mary. Her breakdown at Frank’s party is particularly volatile. In a smart touch, after she falls to the floor in a drunken stupor, a partygoer takes a photograph, suggesting that her humiliation is far from over and her credibility as a movie critic is probably in danger. Emily Young’s Gussie (who steals Frank away from his wife Beth and conspires to remake him) is broadly played as a vampy villain, which is usually the case.
I do hope that Fiasco will get to tour Merrily (as it did with Into the Woods), which would mark the first-ever national tour of Merrily. I also hope its version becomes licensable, as it may be attractive to theater companies with limited resources. That being said, I also hope Sondheim and Music Theatre International (which controls the licensing of Merrily and most other Sondheim shows) will allow theater companies the option of performing the original version – and I’d like to see it one day with a full orchestra. Like Candide, as well as plays by Shakespeare, Merrily exists in multiple guises and formats, offering different merit and presenting different problems. I doubt there will ever be a definitive Merrily, but Merrily will definitely continue to be revived. It rolls along.