Merrily We Roll Along
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
July 17, 2005
Few shows come with more baggage than George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along. Critically lambasted during its Broadway run, the show only lasted 16 performances, and ended Sondheim’s collaboration with producer-director Harold Prince for more than twenty years. Furth’s book—a caustic, jaded tale of youthful optimism corrupted by fame and fortune—was blamed for the show’s failure, and has been periodically rewritten by the author over the years, generating a number of high profile revivals. Sondheim’s score, on the other hand, is a blast of tuneful, toe-tapping Broadway pizzazz, anchored by a pair of ballads—“Not a Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going”—that have become standards on the cabaret and classroom circuits. Still, critics harp on Merrily’s shortcomings, viewing them as obstacles that cannot be surmounted. But, these same shortcomings are also enticing challenges for anyone bold enough to produce the show: they want to see if they can be the ones who finally put on a successful production of it.
Purgason Productions, no doubt, have this goal in mind with their current revival of Merrily. Theirs is a production full of fresh-faced performers who are eager to make a good impression. And, their ambition in tackling this difficult show is commendable. But, their eagerness betrays a lack of both skill and experience that makes success elusive.
Merrily tells the story of three friends—Franklin Shepard, Charlie Kringas, and Mary Flynn—fresh out of college, who are looking to conquer the world: Franklin and Charlie are an up-and-coming composer-lyricist team, and Mary is a budding novelist. We follow their almost 20-year friendship, from 1957 to 1976, through a host of trials and tribulations including early success, divorce, betrayal, alcoholism, and artistic corruption before the trio winds up estranged from one another. Franklin has morphed from rising Broadway composer to powerful Hollywood producer; Charlie, crushed and revolted by Franklin’s sellout, returns to Broadway and pens a Pulitzer Prize-winning play; and Mary, devastated by their falling out—and by her hidden, unrequited love for Franklin—spirals downward from best-selling novelist to bitter, alcoholic drama critic.
The conceit of Furth’s book is that he tells the entire story in reverse. Merrily begins in 1976, at the end of the threesome’s friendship, and journeys backwards in time, retracing the steps that led them to that point. This is a thrillingly ambitious idea that backfires. By introducing the main characters at their very worst, Furth makes it hard for us to care about them later. We’ve already seen what they’re going to become, so why should we give a damn?
Furth’s character development also seems a little lopsided. Mary and Charlie are written well enough to come off as three-dimensional human beings (albeit, not very pleasant ones), but Franklin never seems like anything more than a cipher. Sure, he’s talented and adored, but we never get a sense of who he is or what he believes in. He just goes wherever life takes him. Perhaps Franklin’s moral flexibility is the point, but having such a nebulous character at the heart of the show is not helpful for clarity’s sake. Despite these shortcomings Furth’s book still has enough substance—in the form of colorful supporting characters and acid one-liners—for any and all takers to grab on to.
Sondheim’s score—one of his very best—is full of the composer’s trademark wit and humor, as well as some of his most gorgeous, soaring melodies. Aside from the show’s signature ballads, Merrily features two of Sondheim’s classic patter songs: “Opening Doors,” a dizzying musical montage chronicling Franklin, Charlie, and Mary’s early beginnings; and “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” Charlie’s scathing attack on the businessman his collaborator has become. The wistful ballad “Our Time,” in which the protagonists’ younger selves declare the world as theirs for the taking, ends the show on a poignant and bittersweet note.
Unfortunately, this current production of Merrily is not up-to-snuff enough for the creative team to take advantage of it as a showcase vehicle. Director Steve Velardi has unwisely cast the show with a large contingent of current college students and recent college grads, which is a plus, in terms of energy and enthusiasm. But, in terms of confidence and seasoning, it is a huge minus: Velardi’s young cast has neither, in a show that cries out for both stage and life experience from its performers. (More than a few of them have that deer-in-the-headlights look of rookie performers who have minimal experience walking and talking on stage at the same time.) They have trouble projecting vocally, in both their speaking and singing voices, and often thrive only as a group (there is safety in numbers, after all). And, they fail to hit the emotional peaks necessary to make the story moving or compelling. Overall, there is a general sense of tentativeness that pervades everything in this Merrily.
As I said earlier, the entire company should be commended for trying to take this show on. Their courage is admirable, and their ambition cannot be ignored. In time, I’m sure that most of them will blossom into more-than-capable performers. But, for now, they would all be better served by material that is a little easier for them to handle. Until then, Furth and Sondheim’s enigmatic Merrily We Roll Along remains a puzzle in search of a solution.