by Carol Rocamora
In its tumultuous 38-year-history, Merrily We Roll Along has had more drafts, cuts, revisions and rewrites than almost any of Stephen Sondheim’s great works. It’s criss-crossed “the pond” several times, morphed through numerous productions, and changed many artistic hands (Harold Prince, James Lapine and Michael Grandage have directed it; Jason Alexander, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Celia Keenan-Bolger have starred in it). It’s won awards (an Olivier for Best Musical in 2001) and garnered both praise and harsh reviews. Once considered a failure (the 1981 Broadway premiere closed after 16 performances), it’s been transformed into a cult classic musical.
So Merrily keeps rolling along – this time, into the Laura Pels, in an exuberant, engaging production by Fiasco Theater. This innovative, captivating young company, now in residence at the Roundabout, has brought us sublime Sondheim before – their revival of Into the Woods at Roundabout garnered the 2015 Lucille Lortel Award for Best revival.
Merrily is a perfect fit for this company of theatre artists who came of age together since their university days. It tells the story of three idealistic young artists (composer, lyricist, writer) with stars in their eyes, as they rise to fame and fortune, grow together (and apart) over time, as their dreams and ideals are tested. The theatrical marvel of the storytelling is that it’s told in reverse chronology – based on Kaufman and Hart’s original 1931 play, after which Sondheim based his musical. Hence, we meet the trio in 1980 – at the top of their game (and disillusionment), and journey backwards in time in a reverse sequence of scenes and songs – all the way back to 1957 filled with hope. This device has been tried before (Dumas’s La Dame aux Camélias, Pinter’s Betrayal) and it works like gangbusters, delivering a wallop of nostalgia and regret for the passage of time, the fading of dreams and relationships.
Sondheim’s score has been given new arrangements and orchestrations by Alexander Gemignani, who directs an 8–piece orchestra hidden away in Derek McLane’s smashing set, evoking a prop/costume warehouse filled with theatre memorabilia.
Noah Brody directs with skill and verve, Lorin Latarro choreographs, and the company shines. As the trio of friends, Ben Steinfeld and Manu Narayan play Frank the ambitious composer and Charley his loyal lyricist – whose loving collaboration is tested over the years (made even more painful since you know the outcome at the beginning.) Jessie Austrian plays a witty, rueful Mary who nurses her unrequited love for Frank with drink. Brittany Bradford plays the beautiful-voiced Beth, and her poignant song “Not a Day Goes By” breaks your heart both times she sings it. Emily Young plays Gussie, Frank’s second, spirited and fiercely ambitious wife, and Paul Coffey is her producer ex-husband.
Merrily We Roll Along is a musical about fame, fortune, friendship – and what constitutes success in America. What makes it even richer is the historical context in which Sondheim and George Furth set it. Beginning with the Reagan years, the play journeys backwards through the Nixon years, the Kennedys – all the way back to Sputnik, the play’s last scene and the beginning of the trio’s friendship. Standing on the roof of their apartment building, watching the satellite in the New York sky, these eighteen-year-olds sing “Our Time,” filled with hopes and dreams. It’s a heartbreaker, knowing the financial (not personal) success that Frank will achieve and the disappointments that Mary and Charley will suffer twenty-three years later.
And of course there is the glorious music of Sondheim – 16 songs, in this version. “Opening Doors” features the ensemble at its best, “Meet the Blob” offers delightful choreography (including life-sized puppets) – but, frankly, they’re all wonderful, and the ensemble does them justice.
Fiasco has put its collective heart and soul into this production, collaborating with Sondheim, working through four workshops over several years – doing what the characters in Merrily are doing, being “old friends who want to make art together,” in the words of Steinfeld, the company’s co-artistic director. “We’ve thrown our lot in together,” says Austrian, also a co-artistic director. “We’ve opened a lot of doors [as Sondheim’s song goes] because of how we work collectively. It takes care to grow together over time.”
That means both forward … and in reverse.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Merrily We Roll Along, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, directed by Noah Brody, at Roundabout’s Laura Pels theatre until April 7. www.roundabouttheater.org