Fiasco Theater, the breezily creative group which favored us with an altogether nifty production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre in 2015, returns to 46th Street with an even more exciting and creatively successful Merrily We Roll Along.
Their method last time ’round was to reduce the production, orchestration, and cast, the better to enhance characters, relationships, and relevance. You might well walk in expecting more of the same; but Fiasco’s Merrily isn’t the same. While the cast has indeed been reduced to a core of six (wonderful) actors, the present creative team—with the express approval of the composer—have delved deep into the piece.
If the inner workings of the two interlocking romantic triangles (or is it three?) seem more prominent in this new Merrily, that might be because the Fiasco team has done some significant book revision. They not only include material from early drafts of the musical, but dialogue from the 1934 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play that serves as source material. And notably, later additions—like the on-stage presence of Frank Jr.—are excised.
Merrily has always been a relatively big affair, with its core characters surrounded by an ensemble of ten or more playing “the friends of Frank” and numerous incidental characters. (The innumerable small roles stem, in part, from the method of the source play, which had a staggering Depression-era cast of 91.) The score itself is written for numerous voices, with some stunning work along those lines from the composer. Fiasco and director Noah Brody have purposely transformed Merrily into a six-actor musical, with the necessary contributions of the absent ensemble picked up by whomever is momentarily available to do so.
This type of handling could prove problematic to many existing book musicals; it can be fatal to tear apart the construction of a successful show. It can also look budget-crimped and sometimes cheap. But remember that Merrily, in its original incarnation, was anything but successful; it staggered ignominiously through a mere 16 performances at what was then called the Alvin Theatre. (Designer Derek McLane, in a prop-clogged setting which recalls his work on I Am My Own Wife, wittily sets the showpiece “It’s a Hit!” against a somewhat compressed facsimile of the vertical, light-bulb filled “Alvin” sign formerly adorning that house, now the Neil Simon, which was also home to the composer’s Company and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.)
In effect, the Sondheim-George Furth-Hal Prince team were creating a full-size musical suitable for Broadway circa 1980. As it turned out, they were roundly criticized for what appeared to be a bland production. The present trappings, from McLane and costume designers Paloma Young and Ashley Young Horton, are far more visually stimulating, clever, and intrinsically supportive than the original.
There has always seemed something artificial about Merrily, the action of which moves backward over the course of the story. The transitions necessitate bright and cheery chorus sections to roll us along, don’t they? Without this, it turns out, we concentrate more fully on the psychological dynamics—so well limned in the intertwined and overlapping score—of the central characters. How, you might wonder, would Sondheim and friends conceive this musical in the age of Next to Normal, Fun Home, and Dear Evan Hansen? Like this, maybe. Nowadays, our musicals can flourish and thrive without all those full-scale trappings.
Those familiar with the score will be struck from the outset by a brave and most fortuitous reinstatement: “Rich and Happy,” which seems to have been used only in the original 1981 production of the show. The author long ago replaced it with “That Frank,” which is well-fashioned and helps focus the story on the central character. But “Rich and Happy,” for me, has always seemed one of the musical signposts of this exceptional score. I have never since seen the show without feeling its absence, and it’s invigorating to have it launch the plot as originally intended.
The cast is exceptional. The central trio of “old friends” is portrayed by Ben Steinfeld (Frank), Jessie Austrian (Mary), and Manu Narayan (Charley). They are joined by Emily Young (Gussie and others), Paul L. Coffey (Joe and others), and Brittany Bradford (Beth and others). (In Into the Woods, Fiasco founders and co-artistic directors Austrian, Steinfeld, and Brody played the Baker’s Wife, the Baker, and the Wolf. Young was Little Red Riding Hood, while Coffey was that Mysterious Man.)
Austrian again shines, here in the role of the dipsomaniac Mary, with her zingers and her singing expressing all the pain within. (Austrian and her costumers also make a bold choice that perfectly suits the character but I don’t recall having seen attempted before.) She is well matched by Steinfeld, while Narayan—one of the lone positive attributes of the recent Getting’ the Band Back Together—is again impressive here. Bradford, a recent Juilliard graduate, offers sturdy background support until the late-in-the-show/early-in-the-story entrance of first wife Beth, at which point she demonstrates that she is well up to the rest of them.
If the thought of a reduced Merrily leaves you apprehensive of the handling of Sondheim’s score, fear not. Alexander Gemignani, who has impressed us as a singing actor in musicals Sondheim and non-, here demonstrates that he is a keen orchestrator as well. Working with eight musicians—the same size as the Broadway pit bands of Dear Evan Hansen and Come from Away—Gemignani provides the large sound the music calls for, highlighted by the cacophony provided by two trumpets and two reeds. The orchestrator also serves as music director, a slot filled in the original 1981 production by his illustrious father.
When Merrily We Roll Along first staggered through previews, opened to general calumny and floundered within a fortnight, even the master songsmith’s staunchest supporters were likely to think, well this one doesn’t work. Subsequent productions have demonstrated that Merrily does work, indeed; just look at it now, at the Roundabout.
Or to quote the Bard of Turtle Bay: It’s a hit! It’s a hit! It’s a palpable hit!
Merrily We Roll Along opened February 19, 2019, at the Laura Pels Theatre and runs through April 14. Tickets and information: roundabouttheatre.org