World-famous apocryphal opera story: Tenor sings aria and audience rises as one, demanding “Encore! Encore!” Tenor obliges, audience responds with even greater frenzy — “Encore! Encore!” After several more encores, the singer, exhilarated but exhausted, implores the audience, “How many more times must I sing this for you?” A voice rings out from the house, “Until you get it right!”
For 13 years, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth have been trying to get “Merrily We Roll Along” right. The odds are against them because “Merrily,” like the 1934 Kaufman and Hart play it’s based upon, thumbs its nose at emotional logic by starting at the end of a story and working back through time to the beginning. To be sure, there are a few shows in which the tactic has paid off, but they’re exceptions proving the rule.
Moreover, while boasting one of Sondheim’s most accessible scores, a couple of new songs add nothing, and Furth’s book has only deteriorated across several reworkings. That book, along with the ugliest set design this side of “Grease” and chaotic staging by Susan H. Schulman and choreographer Michael Lichtefeld, make the York Theater production a serious obstacle course for the hard-core Sondheim fan.
And guess what? “Merrily” is still a wonderful show, in the listening, if not in the viewing. For that, credit musical director Michael Rafter and a cast that , with one prominent exception, sings a lovely, moving score with great feeling and warmth.
“Merrily” is the story of composer Franklin Shepard (Malcolm Gets), playwright/lyricist Charley Kringas (Adam Heller) and novelist Mary Flynn (Amy Ryder), whose friendship begins in college in 1957 and intensifies during the ‘ 60s as they achieve varying degrees of success. The relationships begin degenerating by the decade’s end as Franklin becomes a Hollywood producer and is finally viewed by Charley and Mary as a crass sellout; by 1976, it’s all over between them.
The story is made more poignant by the fact that from the very beginning, Mary is hopelessly in love with Franklin, despite his two marriages and her loathing of his values. The New York good/Los Angeles bad equation seems naive today, especially given the fact that for the entire first act, Charley comes off as a strident, self-centered loser. And leaving aside the amazing “Passion” he’s given Broadway this season, one wonders how Sondheim views these issues today as his music pushes everything from Streisand to Big Blue. Strange, in that context, to hear a producer admonish Franklin, “You need a tune you can hum/Why can’t you throw ’em a crumb?”
The original production covered a slightly longer time period and opened with Franklin addressing a high school graduating class on the subject of compromising one’s ideals as the key to happiness and success, then drifted back through the years as marriages and partnerships broke up, foundered, blossomed, budded. The show was bookended by the beautiful theme “Our Time,” sung in the opening by the high schoolers, and at the end by the young trio as they stood on a Morningside Heights rooftop awaiting the passing overhead of Sputnik and seeing nothing in front of them but opportunity.
This revival opens, after the company sings the title song, with a cocktail party at Franklin’s chi-chi Bel-Air digs and “That Frank,” a reworking of “Rich and Famous” from the original. The other score changes include “Growing Up,” which dates from a 1985 La Jolla Playhouse production, a new Act 2 opening that shows the finale of Franklin and Charley’s first Broadway hit, and “The Blob,” which was cut from the original.
One key change is small but disastrous, and suggests that no one yet knows how to make “Merrily” work. The first act concludes with Franklin’s divorce from his first wife, Beth (Anne Bobby). In a front-of-courthouse confrontation, he asks if she still loves him, and Beth belts out the score’s most emotionally compelling song, “Not a Day Goes By.” It’s a moment that embarrasses and humiliates Beth not only because Bobby doesn’t have the vocal equipment to put it across, but because the emotions don’t belong to her — they’re Franklin’s, and he was the one who sang it originally.
The rest of the performances range from very good — Gets and Heller, along with Paul Harman as the producer who first puts Charley and Franklin to work — to superb — Michele Pawk as the good-time star for whom Franklin dumps Beth, and especially Ryder as the acid-tongued Dorothy Parker of the trio.
Set by James Morgan on a dark blue grid on which Wendall K. Harrington throws projections indicating changes in time and place, “Merrily” looks cluttered and tacky. Worse, the company of 16 seems constantly at risk of flying off into the cosmos frequently projected on the walls and ceiling. But when they’re all singing one of the best scores of any contemporary musical, the show comes across thrillingly. “Merrily” marked the end of Sondheim’s remarkable collaboration with director Hal Prince. Maybe it’s time for an encore.