And to think that in 1981 they couldn’t give tickets away.
To be fair, however, the MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG that’s currently at New York Theatre Workshop is not the same MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG that Broadway briefly saw 41 years ago.
Most writers who endure a two-week flop try to forget about it, but Stephen Sondheim and bookwriter George Furth obviously felt there was something worth saving in their adaptation of the 1934 Kaufman-and-Hart play (which was no barnburner, either).
The collaborators returned to work, dropped the opening and closing scenes, eliminated and added a song or two, and came up with – dare I say it? Yes, I do – a masterpiece. MERRILY is, at least and at last, a lollapalooza and no longer a lollapa-loser.
Too bad Sondheim and Furth didn’t live to see the sensation that’s happening on East 4th Street. Many of those who counted the minutes until they could call and buy seats found that they were somehow too late, and couldn’t even get a single for a Tuesday night.
That caused some of them to join the cancellation line and literally wait for hours and hours. Only precious few gained admittance. After all, the vast, vast majority of those who did work so hard to secure tickets would only not attend MERRILY because of war, pestilence, famine or death.
(And I’m not so sure about famine.)
True musical theater enthusiasts who missed Maria Friedman’s London and Boston productions were rabid to see how she handled the backwards-in-time musical. Some had seen a video, but even so, there’s nothing like being there with likeminded people who cherish the chance to witness this controversial if not infamous show.
Here’s betting that they wouldn’t have cared nearly as much if the 1981 producers had held one of those meetings with the cast after everyone’s read the bad reviews. You know the scene: moneymen clench their fists, wave them in the air, shout “We’re gonna fight!” and the performers all cheer and believe they’ll emerge victorious.
No, if MERRILY had limped through 193 ill-attended performances and had lost good money after bad, it wouldn’t have had the mystique it gained from its hasty exit. The producers back then were wise to say, “You don’t want us? Okay. We’ll go away.”
They gave yet another meaning to “Less is more.”
Friedman’s production most impresses in the way she introduces Franklin Shepard, the once-excellent Broadway composer who turned into a Hollywood mogul. In the original, he was a terribly unsympathetic character, because he was established as a know-it-all when speaking at a graduation, and then a puffed-up host of a swank party. Freidman instead has Jonathan Groff enter unobtrusively upstage before we can even notice that he’s there. As he walks ever so slowly and morosely, Friedman also keep him for getting any possible entrance applause.
And if we’re don’t award him with it, we can’t give it to Tony-winner Lindsay Mendez (Mary Flynn) or superstar Daniel Radcliffe (Charley Kringas). We’re not going to play favorites, after all.
Groff’s Shepard looks terribly troubled, almost suicidal, and soon says “I wish this whole thing was over.” That makes us immediately worry about him. Now MERRILY is more a story in which a rich and unhappy “success” ponders what went wrong, and less of one where other characters keep complaining that he screwed up.
We go back in time and see what the characters were before they became what they became. There’s Frank’s ego when he and Charley are to be interviewed on TV. He’s unfashionably late and doesn’t apologize but proclaims “Frank is here.” His referring to himself in the third person is actually apt, for he will turn out to have three different personalities.
The strong set-up gives an explanation why Charley would rail against “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” the galvanic musical scene-in-itself. At this point, Friedman has opted to avoid applause-buttons for the first two songs, but she certainly allows them after Radcliffe sings this one that makes COMPANY’s “Getting Married Today” seem as lethargic as “Ol’ Man River.” Radcliffe gets through it seemingly effortlessly (which can’t be the case) and is rewarded with a titanic ovation. Just as W.S. Gilbert advised, “Let the punishment fit the crime,” let the applause fit the achievement.
(And if only Al Hirschfeld had lived long enough to draw Radcliffe’s eyebrows!)
Friedman smartly handles the scene in which Beth, Mrs. Franklin Shepard, responds to her husband’s infidelity by singing the haunting “Not a Day Goes By.” Here Groff has been directed not to be an unfeeling bastard; he’s so moved by what Beth is expressing that he rushes to embrace her in a way that says “I don’t loves you less, but, dammit, I’m sorry, but I love Gussie more.” Many an audience member will be able to relate to that inner conflict.
We see problems later in the show when young Frank and younger Beth show up at a rich producer’s party. “There are a lot of sophisticated people here,” Frank warns her. We see that he feels she’s not in their league while he feels that he is.
We’re surprised to see that Mendez’s Mary, shown as a hopeless alcoholic in the first scene, originally didn’t indulge in demon rum or any other spirit. See what drove her to drink.
Mendez also has a smart moment when young Mary believes she still has a chance to be Mrs. Franklin Shepard. He’s embracing his wife-to-be, but Mary manages to extract his arm from this upstart. Late in the show, Mendez gets applause on a line because she did it well, but the attendees also seemed to be saying “We don’t want to wait for the curtain call to show you how much we’ve appreciated you.”
One scene sports a “Welcome Home” banner to celebrate Frank’s return from the armed forces. Perhaps it will be placed in front of the Broadway theater where the powers-that-be will move the revival.
Alas, great as MERRILY is on so many levels, the transfer should be a limited engagement and not an open-ended run. This is not the type of musical that will find eight capacity audiences a week for any length of time.
Too many situations will be lost on civilians. The party scene in which Charley and Frank have scored mightily with “Good Thing Going” – and Frank agrees to do an encore while Charley wants them to quit while they’re ahead – is a situation that Sondheim probably experienced early in his career, either to him or someone else. But this is not something to which John and Jane Q. Theatergoer can relate.
This musical that plays with time has seen time pass some of it by. In the hellishly clever “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” – meaning the Kennedy family whom Charley, Frank and future wife Beth spoof in their nightclub act – there’s a running joke about “the one in the army” which has Frank guessing “Captain? Major?” before Charley comes up with the right answer: “Sargent.” Only those who were around in the ‘60s and ‘70s will remember Sargent Shriver, despite the fact that he even was once a Democratic nominee for vice-president.
Can you say Sputnik? This important component to the plot was on everybody’s lips in late 1957. But how many have heard of it in recent decades?
Does today’s average theatergoer listen intently enough to get all the information Furth carefully placed here and there? A chance remark about an inventor in the first scene pays off near the end of the show; the scene involving a character who could have grown rich from the invention will make a greater impression if one recalls how this naysayer turned out.
So MERRILY’s New York success may be limited to a 188-seat house forty-plus blocks from the Broadway theater district. But that will only mean that a widespread audience can’t appreciate it, while musical theater aficionados will be more enthusiastic than ever before.