Yes, MERRILY Is Rolling Along

The applause began before the performance did.

We’ve heard that increasingly often before a show starts. The practice began at rock concerts and has been sneaking into musical theater more and more.

Yet that wasn’t the reason here. All actor Paul Coffey had to do was come out before the show as a representative of the Fiasco Theater and announce that we were about to see MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.

The mention of the name alone spurred the hearty applause.

People, where were you in ’81 when MERRILY most needed you?

Stephen Sondheim’s score was heard at 16 official performances after 44 not-ready-yet previews. That seven-week run was thirteen months fewer than his previous Tony-winning classic SWEENEY TODD and fifteen months shy of his next Pulitzer-winning SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.

Sondheim worked with Hugh Wheeler on the former, James Lapine on the latter and George Furth on MERRILY. So was Furth the villain? Based on the opening night pans, Sondheim was to blame as well. His score wasn’t truly appreciated until later (as all Sondheim scores are) – three months later, to be precise, when the original cast album was released just in time for the Tony committee to give a listen.

They did, and gave the score its only Tony nomination.

Placing the blame on the bookwriter is musical theater’s go-to knee-jerk reaction. But take it from someone who was at the first preview in 1981 and at the closing performance 51 days later: Furth, Sondheim, director-co-producer Hal Prince and everyone else fixed the damn thing. But the poisonous word-of-mouth was too potent for many to appreciate objectively what MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG had achieved and become.

Closing MERRILY only 11 days after the pans was the smartest thing that Prince and his three co-producers could have done. In essence, they were saying “You don’t want us? Fine. Then we’ll go away.” Why fight a losing battle and throw excellent money after bad? Hanging around would make it akin to a relative that just won’t leave your house.

No, always leave ‘em wanting more. That underexposed run made many a director of musicals say “I want to do it! I can fix it!” That includes Noah Brody, the co-artistic director of Fiasco Theater, whose production filled all 474 seats in the Laura Pels Theatre last Thursday night.

That figure wasn’t far off from the total number of people who were in the audience any given night 37 years ago in the thrice-as-large Alvin Theatre. It may also be close to the number of people who walked out of some performances.

What confused some ’81 theatergoers is that MERRILY goes backwards in time (so does George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1934 play on which the musical is based). Furth started the action in 1982 and had it travel back to precisely October 4, 1957 – the date on which the Soviet Union’s Sputnik could be seen orbiting the earth.

Why was this convention so hard to discern? Sondheim certainly made mention of every year in interstitial songs. Those have been dropped here, but the year a scene takes place is clearly announced beforehand. Brody does add a shrewd touch as the first scene (the “last,” you understand) gives way to the second (the “penultimate,” if you will) by having his characters act as if they’re in a film that’s being rewound. Perhaps that will make it clearer to those who have trouble catching on.

The story has Frank, Charley and Mary find that they were much too optimistic and naïve in 1957 when assuming that they’d be friends forever. As for marriages, MERRILY sees two end prematurely while another is on the rocks the size of Easter Island statues.

Going backwards is the best way to handle a story about disillusionment, lack of loyalty and estrangement. Sondheim has often said that his working as a gofer on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ALLEGRO when he was 17 has been an unforgettable experience for him. That 1947 musical tells the story of a man’s life from birth to 35, with matters getting increasingly worse as he ages. An audience may well have had too unpleasant a time watching a man become progressively unhappy (at least until the show’s final seconds). That could be one reason why ALLEGRO was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s only flop in the first five musicals they wrote. (Their quartet of hits averaged 1,568 performances; ALLEGRO managed only 315.)

So starting a show – rather than ending it — with disillusionment, lack of loyalty and estrangement allows the characters to only get nicer as they get younger. ALLEGRO’S point about life taking its toll is still made, but MERRILY’s second act is endearing and charming instead of increasingly bitter and hard-to-take.

This could explain why MERRILY has been produced much more often than ALLEGRO, despite the earlier show’s having a 34-year head start. Having a metaphor – which ALLEGRO didn’t – helps, too; one character describes her relationship with a longtime friend by saying “We go back — but never forward.”

Yes, there were walkouts last Thursday at MERRILY. Two. You can’t please everybody. The other 472 certainly stayed in place. Win, lose or draw, people wanted their chance with this often-discussed musical. So never mind the putrid 1981 pedigree. As this production’s first lyric tells us, “Yesterday is gone.”

Many directors have made radical changes to MERRILY, but Brody has been the most revolutionary. He decided that the show could be performed by only three men and three women.

“Wait!” all MERRILY veterans and/or admirers will shriek. “What about the party scene that starts the show?” When you come right down to it, only four principals of importance are needed: Frank, Broadway composer turned movie mogul; Mary, his old friend; Meg, his current girlfriend and Gussie, his second wife and Broadway star (whom Emily Young plays with the right phony brio).

That leaves the other two actors who of course will eventually play Frank’s erstwhile librettist-lyricist collaborator Charley and Joe Josephson, the producer of their first two hits. (That’s Coffey, who has the right benign vulgarity). But because Charley and Joe won’t be established as vital characters until the next scene, we can accept them as Mere Party Guests.

Is your next question “But what about the scene in front of the courthouse after Frank and (first wife) Beth are officially divorced?” Brody sets the scene in another time and another place where it actually works better. (Fans may well appreciate the difference in the detailed and thoughtful way that Jessie Austrian’s Mary delivers “Now You Know.”)

Those who have followed MERRILY’s post-Broadway history know that along the line the creators added a moment where Gussie was on stage singing “Good Thing Going” in Frank and Charley’s first hit MUSICAL HUSBANDS. That scene is included here, so, you ask “Where are her backup boys in a mere cast of six?” Brody has a true masterstroke of a solution not only in how he easily handles that but also in how he seamlessly gets into the next scene, too, without needing a costume change.

Next question: “But what about the party at Joe’s where Frank and Charley sing their newest song?” Well, yes, you do need people there, and that’s when Ms. Austrian dons a mustache; remember, Mary wasn’t invited. She, along with others, carry poles with faces atop them.

By this point, you may well not mind the absence of actors at all. The simple truth is that MERRILY’s scenes almost always deal with just a few people at a time. One has Gussie describe the musical that she wants Frank to write: “It’s fun! It’s opulent! It’s Broadway!” Well, MERRILY is far more moving than mere “fun” and here on a unit set, hardly opulent. So maybe its best home is off-Broadway where the “little” show packs a big wallop.

Many thanks must go to Brody. Wait till you see how he gets the necessary applause that permeates “It’s a Hit.” The song has a reference to FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, but Brody has inventively found a second one.

Brody doesn’t settle for wistful renditions of two important songs. For “Like It Was,” Austrian feels every syllable (and her alcohol by song’s end). Too bad Brody kept the action going as soon as she’d finished, for she was denied some much-deserved applause.

When the soon-to-be discarded Beth delivers her first rendition of “Not a Day Goes By” to Frank, Brittany Bradford doesn’t do it in the usual weepy “I’m so hurt” fashion. This Beth seethes with a ferocious cobra-level sting while conveying “I’M SO HURT!” It’s a much better interpretation.

One of MERRILY’s most dramatic songs occurs in a TV studio where Frank and Charley are about to be interviewed. Before they’re on the air, the host spills the beans that Frank has a new project. Charley is furious, for this isn’t the first time that he’s heard Frank say he was just “waiting for the right time to tell him” – the excuse people give when they really want to postpone bad news and a worse reaction for as long as they can.

Hence Charley’s “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” which even MERRILY haters adored when Lonny Price introduced it in 1981. All his frustration of more than a decade of doing things Frank’s way now explode in a volcanic musical tirade.

Some have wondered why Frank just sits there and takes the invective. Well, he IS on TV and must hope that it will end. But he’s such an egomaniac that the occasional affirmative nod — “Nobody does it better” says Charley of Frank’s musical ability which makes him not want to “lose the greatest composer a lyricist ever had” – is enough to keep him in his seat. But as the compliments give way to unabated and acidic criticism, Frank doesn’t leave for the same we reason we can neither look nor look away from a horrible road accident.

Manu Narayan’s galvanic explosion in the song makes us center on him, of course. But if you can manage to tear your eyes away from him every few seconds, see how expert Ben Steinfeld is in showing all of Frank’s feelings that were listed above.

After this debacle, we’re immediately taken to a scene five years earlier when they’re all so happy. Such a change makes for dynamic theater, and is one of the reasons why MERRILY constantly fascinates. It also plays fair with the show’s villain. Frank asks “Why is it that old friends don’t want old friends to change?” It’s a damn good question.

There’s one more question that MERRILY vets will ask only after they’ve witnessed this revisal and the scene where newlyweds Frank and Beth are living – and having trouble with — her parents. In fact, it’s from the original Kaufman and Hart play.

Was this Brody’s idea? If so, it’s another magnificent one. The scene with Beth’s parents is a powerful one. Frank and Beth are dead broke, which doesn’t please either Beth’s less-than-supportive mother or and her highly critical father. Her doubting and his mocking well serves the show, for it sets up why Frank would from then on be so obsessed with success and money.

But now Beth is on their side, too, partly because they now have a baby. However, when she criticizes her husband, we very much need a few words that are sorely missing.

For as soon as this scene is over, we’re onto the next (a year earlier) where Beth is enjoying herself on stage as the snazzy revue performer in a spoof of the Kennedys. To cite a MERRILY lyric: “How did it happen?”

Frank should have rebutted Beth’s argument in the previous scene: “But, honey. You were a performer. You wanted show business, too. You can understand how I feel, can’t you?” Then we’d know why seconds later she’s on stage giving a song her all (which Brittany indeed does).

A musical that deals with the past and present – and has had a troubled past and now a glorious present – has so many lines that resonate. “Never knew how much I missed you till now.” How true, MERRILY! “One day, you can say you were there when.” I’ve done that already with the original production, but people who weren’t around for one reason or another in 1981 will see this superb MERRILY and be bragging that they were indeed there when.