For all the wit and beauty and visceral punch Stephen Sondheim has brought to musical theater, it can be easy to forget that his collaborators have sometimes proven less consistent. His first Broadway flop, 1964’s Anyone Could Whistle, boasts a glorious score, but the libretto—by Arthur Laurents, who had previously teamed with Sondheim on West Side Story and Gypsy—is a mess.
1981’s similarly short-lived Merrily We Roll Along features a book by George Furth, also Sondheim’s partner on Company. While Merrily, based on a Kaufman and Hart play with the same title, produced such enduring favorites as “Not a Day Goes By,” “Good Thing Going,” and “Old Friends,” its account of three pals struggling in their creative lives and with each other—moving backward in time, starting with the trio in jaded middle age and ending in their bright-eyed youth—has challenged even the most resourceful directors. That dates back to Harold Prince, who helmed its first and so far only Broadway production.
Other companies and artists have continued to take a crack at Merrily, though, the latest being Fiasco Theater, which several years ago delivered a delightful, stripped-down production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods. For Merrily, which marks its second partnership with Roundabout Theatre Company, Fiasco’s co-artistic directors Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, and Ben Steinfeld were able to sit down with Sondheim and gain access to earlier versions of the text and cut songs; they also referred back to the 1934 play that served as Sondheim and Furth’s source material, and to a 1994 off-Broadway staging.
The result, now being presented at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, is actually a leaner incarnation of the musical, with no intermission and no substantial addition to the score. There’s rather a tightened focus on the potent but fragile bonds among Charley, a playwright, Frank, a composer, and Mary, a writer and critic—played by Manu Narayan, Steinfeld, and Austrian, all excellent under Brody’s vibrant direction—and how those relationships complement and clash with others, and with the central friends’ pursuit of success, in the different ways they define it.
When we meet them, in a prologue set in 1980, Mary is an embittered alcoholic and Frank a film producer who has forsaken writing music to seek riches in Hollywood. Charley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and formerly Frank’s collaborator on well-received musicals, as we will learn in following scenes, no longer speaks to either of them. Austrian, especially, is biting and wrenching in the play’s early (that is, chronologically later) scenes, speaking in a dusky sneer while relaying the heartache caused Mary by the growing rift between Charley and Frank, and by the torch she carries for the latter.
The two men’s seemingly oppositional goals are central to their conflict: Most simply put, Charley wants to make art while Frank wants to make money—a conundrum summed up hilariously in “Franklin Shepard Inc.,” which Narayan makes a delirious, exhilarating tour de force. But in this production, we see clearly the pressures Frank faced as a young father, married to the nervous Beth—sweetly played by Brittany Bradford, one of three actors who cannily juggle different roles—so that his striving ultimately seems less purely selfish and crass.
This Merrily also mines the exuberance in those songs, emphasizing the youthful spark that accompanied Frank’s climb and those of his buddies. “Old Friends” and “It’s a Hit!” become ebullient production numbers, as gleaming as they are spare, with vivid, luscious harmonies. (Second-generation Sondheim colleague Alexander Gemignani is the music director and orchestrator, and has provided some new arrangements.) “Opening Doors,” famously inspired by Sondheim’s own salad days, buzzes with the relentless energy unique to the very young and idealistic, posing a poignant contrast to hard-bitten songs such as “Now You Know.”
Derek McLane’s towering set, which evokes a time-traveling theatrical warehouse—complete with lamps, mirrors, suitcases, radios from different eras, and an applause sign that figures cleverly in one number—gives the performers ample space to play, right up to the moving final scene on the rooftop of young Charley’s uptown apartment building, in 1957. “Years from now,” he and Frank and Mary sing, “We’ll remember… This is where we began/ Being what we can.”
The lyric, like so many in Merrily, carries a bittersweet sting—perhaps enhanced, in this case, by the sense of failed promise many of us see now not only in our lives but whenever we read the news. If Fiasco’s staging falls short of a revelation, or reinvention, it unearths the joys and pain at this vexing but compelling musical’s core, making it feel freshly vital.
Merrily We Roll Along opened February 19, 2019, at the Laura Pels Theatre and runs through April 14. Tickets and information: roundabouttheatre.org