Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Act II: Plenty of roads to try

By Edward Copeland
Those three people laughing above, if you don't recognize them, play a large part in the next chapter of Merrily We Roll Along, the chapter that began to resuscitate the show from its near-death Broadway experience as a musical Old Yeller, certain to be taken out and shot for its own good. As I mentioned in Act I (which if you somehow got here first and didn't read it, click here), I've never been fortunate enough to see a production of the show so I know it only by its score, which I love. (Full disclosure: Just what I gleaned of the story from the score and reading liner notes, it never quite seemed logical to me for a successful composer to transform himself suddenly into a successful movie producer. How would that work? Anyway, I digress.) From left to right, they are Chip Zien, John Rubinstein and Heather Mac Rae, and in June 1985, those three performers took on the roles of Charley Kringas, Franklin Shepherd and Mary Flynn, respectively, when The La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, Calif., decided to stage the show. Now, Merrily did have one intervening production between Broadway and La Jolla — The Guildhall School of Music of Drama in London gave the musical its European premiere in March 1983 and later transferred it for a run of about a week at London's Bloomsbury Theatre. However, that production didn't receive the input and cooperation of Stephen Sondheim to write new songs, rewrite old songs and dump some songs altogether and George Furth to revise the libretto. This Merrily was directed by James Lapine, who had just completed his first collaboration with Sondheim as director and book-writer on Sunday in the Park with George, which won the new team the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and still was playing on Broadway as they began tinkering with Merrily We Roll Along in California.


In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim describes that La Jolla production as "The critical moment in the rehabilitation of Merrily We Roll Along" going on to emphasize that Lapine, "being both a writer and a director, firmly suggested that casting young but experienced adults rather than talented but inexperienced teenagers was only part of the solution: in order to accommodate the change in casting, the writing would have to be reexamined as well." Both Sondheim and Furth attended rehearsals for the La Jolla production, making changes to both book and score. No longer did Merrily begin with Frank giving a commencement address. Instead, it opens with him at a big Hollywood post-premiere party. Gone were songs such as "The Hills of Tomorrow" and "Rich and Happy," added were new tunes "Growing Up," "That Frank" and "The Blob" and others that stayed got revisions. While gather as much material as I could preparing for this, I stumbled upon a fascinating blog called The Ugly Bug Ball. The author had an entry dated Oct. 5 of this year called "My Sondheim Summer." It is a fascinating read that I'm not going to spoil here, but you should read for yourself about a college student studying technical theater at San Diego State who volunteered to work on a show at the La Jolla Playhouse having no idea that it would be Merrily We Roll Along (revised edition) and that Sondheim, Furth and John Rubinstein would be there or that when it opened, it would attract celebrities such as Gene Hackman. The writer tells of some wild events during rehearsals and performances including a fire alarm going off after it opened and also reminds me of outside events happening around that time in the summer of 1985 such as New Coke. Check it out. Another member of the cast playing the role of Beth was Marin Mazzie, who would later earn a Tony nomination as featured actress in a musical as Clara in Passion the most recent original Sondheim show to premiere on Broadway. She also received lead actress nominations for the musical Ragtime and the revival of Kiss Me, Kate opposite Brian Stokes Mitchell. In five years, she'd play Beth in Merrily again. Sylvie Drake, reviewing for The Los Angeles Times, found this Merrily to be better, but thought it could still use work. "Certainly the Merrily that opened Sunday night at the La Jolla Playhouse is an improvement over the Broadway original, but it's not improved enough," Drake wrote, adding later, "If this Merrily requires anything, it is, in fact, more shaving. The streamlining Furth did on his book isn't sufficient. Having thrown off earlier shackles (including, at the top of the list, the monstrous Broadway set by Eugene Lee that did everything but slice and spit up actors), this Merrily deserved to really roll. It doesn't." Dan Sullivan, also writing for the L.A. Times, wrote on the day of the last La Jolla performance a piece that asked if the production were good enough to take to New York. The headline though misled, based only on a high demand for tickets, not Sullivan's opinion of the production, though he admits he never saw the original for comparison. "Something's missing in Merrily II. It is not skill of presentation. The piece has the snap of a Broadway show, with a cast that one might well see on Broadway.…It rolls backward, however — which brings up a problem that has dogged Merrily We Roll Along ever since Kaufman and Hart wrote it as a straight play in 1934. To wit: How to interest an audience in a story when you have already shown them how it comes out?" Needless to say, the La Jolla Merrily didn't go to New York.


It was now 1990 — 10 years since the original Merrily We Roll Along had planned to start rehearsals. Five years after the mostly positive reception to the revised version staged in La Jolla, another version was about to be produced by Arena Stage in Washington at the Kreeger Theater. It opened Jan. 30 and ran through April 8, by far the longest run of any Merrily so far. The three lead roles were filled by Victor Garber as Frank, David Garrison as Charley and Becky Ann Baker as Mary. Marin Mazzie repeated the role of Beth she played in La Jolla. More tinkering with the book and the songs took place. "The Hills of Tomorrow" returned at the end. Gussie, Frank's second wife who is an older star and used to be married to the producer Joe, got two reprises of "Growing Up," the new one added to the first act. Lyricist and book-writer Bill Russell, who had a job that allowed him to type the script of the original, journeyed to D.C. to see the production. "I thought they made a very wise decision — casting older actors. It was much easier to accept starting with them older and then going backward to when they were young," Russell told me. "The other way…was much harder to swallow. It just didn't make sense for the characters to first appear as middle-aged and jaded and be played by all those fresh (and super talented) faces." Someone else paid a return visit for the Arena production: Frank Rich. The headline on his review read, A Show Keeps Coming Back, Getting Closer on Every Orbit. "At the end of Merrily We Roll Along, three young people of 1957, all with dreams of theatrical or literary glory, stand on a roof in New York City to spot Sputnik, a symbol of their high hopes, as it streaks across a starry sky. Nine years after its failure on Broadway, Merrily continues to follow its own alluring, elusive trajectory through the musical theater," Rich wrote. "In various revised versions, this Stephen Sondheim-George Furth adaptation of the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart has been sighted at small companies from Los Angeles to London in recent seasons. Each production raises the hopes of partisans that a resurrected Merrily will soon redeem their faith in the show by splashing down triumphantly in New York. Arena Stage's rendition of the musical…is the closest the reworked Merrily has gotten to Broadway — geographically, at least. One hopes the authors will not let up now. As it stands in Washington, the much improved Merrily still falls short of its exceptional score…There's still some work for Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Furth to do." Merrily would stop in Leicester, England, two years later (without "The Hills of Tomorrow" again), but then after that it would return to New York, albeit not Broadway.


As Maxwell Smart used to say, "Missed it by thatmuch." The year 1994 was the first time I traveled to New York to see a Broadway show. I did it in April to see both halves of the play Angels in America. I returned soon after and squeezed a show in while on a movie junket — a Sondheim show no less. I saw Passion while it still was in previews. Of course, I love that score but at the same time, The York Theatre Company was presenting director Susan H. Schulman's revised Merrily We Roll Along at St. Peter's Church. I hadn't heard the reviews or heard the CD and didn't know the city well enough to realize it actually was closer to my hotel than Passion was. I wouldn't have wanted to have to choose anyway, though in retrospect — fuck! Then, you are reading someone who, before other things happened like losing a dear friend to a heart defect no one knew she had and having made a mistake by having a surgery that has left me bedridden and unable to travel far or see theater, I always said if time travel were possible, I'd first use it to see Ethel Merman live in Gypsy. Every road has a turning, that's the way you keep learning. By this time, Frank Rich had given up the theater beat to be an invaluable op-ed columnist and David Richards was serving his very brief tenure as The New York Times' chief theater critic. "When it opened it 1981, Merrily We Roll Along had a dazzling score that put stars in your eyes, and a troublesome book that left a sour taste in your mouth. While the show folded after 16 performances on Broadway, no one was willing to lay it to rest," Richards wrote. "If the book could be tidied up and some of its sourness tempered, the thinking went, the creators would surely have a full-fledged hit on their hands. The repair work began with a revival at the La Jolla Playhouse in California in 1985 and continued at Arena Stage in Washington in 1990. Still more adjustments were made two years ago at the Haymarket Theater in Leicester, England. Now the new and revised Merrily We Roll Along can be seen at the Theater at St. Peter's Church in a spirited production by the York Theater Company. The score, having acquired several new numbers over the years, is, if anything, more brilliant than ever. As for the book, half of it, the second half, is moving in a deeply melancholy way. Getting there is the problem. It always was." Vincent Canby, who was serving as The Times' Sunday theater critic after decades of reviewing films, did have some nice things to say, though he showed that it's hard to remove the movie references from an aging critic's brain who just switched beats. "Only Crazy for You on Broadway, has a pop score to match the songs in Merrily We Roll Along, including the title number, which provides the transitions between the scenes. These transitions, sung by various members of the company, are reminiscent of the visual transitions by which Luis Buñuel connected the episodes in his surreal dream of a comedy The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: six friends stride with implacable but breezy purpose down a country road through a field of golden wheat. In much the same way, the characters in Merrily We Roll Along march, heads up, through the fine Sondheim score to their predestined fates," Canby wrote. Despite what any critics said, the score already had given Merrily a cult status and when a recording of the York production came out, that almost saved its stature. I'm a huge Sondheim fan and I've managed to see productions of most of his shows and, inevitably, the assessment almost always turns out the same: Magnificent score, weak book. Of the Sondheim shows I have seen, the only one that really managed to have a book that equaled Sondheim's songs was Hugh Wheeler's book for Sweeney Todd.


Social media truly can be a wondrous thing. As it allowed me to get comments from original cast members Liz Callaway and Tonya Pinkins and lyricist/book-writer Bill Russell for this piece, I also got responses from others, including two who were in that great York Theatre Company production. Danny Burstein, who played three roles in the show — Ru, The Floor Manager and a Pianist — can be seen on stage, screen and TV. He received a Tony nomination for the recent revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, plays the recurring role of casino manager Lolly Steinman on Boardwalk Empire and will be seen next year in the film Nor'easter. "I had no idea we salvaged the reputation of the show. My memory of the production, which was about 17 years ago, is slightly vague now, sadly. All I know is that Steve was happy and George was happy. They felt it worked and that was good enough for me," Burstein told me. "I remember coming offstage after the curtain call and Steve hugging Susan Schulman saying 'Yes, yes,' as if she'd finally solved it and figured it out. The show worked." The other York cast member who spoke with me I'm proud to boast that I've spoken with online and for real long before I thought about this article. Anne Bobby, who played Beth in the York production, has done a little bit of everything and still does, but I'd hate to pick out any of her credits for her. "I was honored to work with Steve on Merrily — of all his shows, that's the one I've always felt elicits the most heartfelt fondness from both actors and audiences. The universality of the theme — how we become who we are — to me makes the show his most poignant and personal," Anne said to me. (I feel funny using her first name and everyone else's last name, but like I said I communicate with her more and Bobby sounds like a first name also.) "What gets me about Merrily is that different aspects of the show affect me more deeply than others as I get older. When I was playing Beth at the York I was 27, and “Our Time” was the moment that brought tears to my eyes. Through my 30s, “Good Thing Going” did the same. Now in 2011, surprisingly, it's “Now You Know” that sends a charge through me. Who knows what song will be the resonating soundtrack in my head when I retire? But again, that's the miracle of Merrily — we roll, we just roll, and the songs roll, too." The musical's story didn't end at the York. In 2000, the Donmar Warehouse in London did one and they must have gone old school — they brought back "The Hills of Tomorrow" at the beginning and the end, dumped "That Frank" and restored "Rich and Happy." In 2002, Merrily came back twice. Once as part of a Sondheim celebration at the Kennedy Center where they performed in repertory for four months, in addition to Merrily, productions of Sweeney Todd, Company, Sunday in the Park With George, Passion and A Little Night Music. Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of The Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virg., served as artistic director for the Kennedy Center festival. Later in 2002, for one night only, the original Broadway cast reunited for a one-night concert for charity that pretty much stuck to the original song list, though it added "Growing Up," "The Blob" and "Thank You for Coming," a song cut before previews. The Kennedy Center cast included Emily Skinner, who shared a Tony nomination for lead actress in a musical with Alice Ripley as Skinner played Daisy Hilton to Ripley's Violet Hilton, the conjoined twins at the center of Side Show, whose lyrics and book Bill Russell wrote. In Merrily, she got to play Gussie, the star who steals Frank away from his first wife Beth. "Merrily is one of my very favorite musicals I've ever had the joy to be in. Fantastic score, gritty, smart book. Like all of Sondheim's work, so brilliantly thought out, exploring complicated yet universal themes. Merrily is a juicy gem," Skinner told me. "We reveled in throwing ourselves into it. And our Kennedy Center cast was absolutely sublime." Since Beth and Gussie are two of the major roles in the show, I asked both actresses what it was like to age backward live. Skinner said she "didn't really find it particularly difficult. The costumes and wigs did most of the work." For Anne, it remained about the music, not the aging or the chronology. "Moving back in time didn't have as much of an effect on my show as the music. What a workout that show was — we were all like athletes, assembling every night for a full vocal warmup that was critical. We were un-amplified, on a stage that had exactly one place where you could really project and the sound bounced off the walls instead of getting absorbed by them," she said. "By the end of the run my diaphragm had expanded to the point where some of my costumes barely fit. The show changed the way I sang, changed the way I interpreted song and ultimately, changed the way I looked at my future — and my past. Which is what I think Merrily does for everyone." Though I haven't seen the show, having love those other works that went backward, I don't think the reverse chronology dooms it to failure. That problem can be solved. Burstein agrees. "I think the backwards motion of the musical can work well. It's intriguing, isn't it?" Burstein said. "To see where the characters wind up first and then watch how they got there? The musical takes the concept and expands on it delivering on of Steve's most brilliant scores. But, what score by Sondheim is not one of the most brilliant things you've ever heard?" The music certainly proved infectious to Skinner and her castmates, even between acts. "One of my fondest memories was of dancing (with wild, silly abandon) with the entire cast onstage right behind the curtain to Jonathan Tunick's amazing 'Entr'acte' music. A party every night," Skinner said. "One night, Sondheim actually came and watched us do this, as apparently word of our ridiculous dance rave had reached him. Yes, that production was absolutely one of my favorite theatrical experiences." The show's story doesn't end there either. Eric Schaeffer in 2002 directed his own production of Merrily at his Signature Theatre. There have been too many others to catch them all. Director John Doyle, who brought revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd to Broadway where the actors also played the instruments, did the same with Merrily in Cincinnati. Early next year, Encores plans its concert version directed by James Lapine, which already has added an extra week of performances. Several Encores productions have then made the leap to Broadway, the most famous being the still-running Chicago. Could it happen again? The City Center even has produced a YouTube ad for the Merrily concert.


I thought it would only be fair that I toss out some plugs for the people who were kind enough to give me comments for this post. I also thought I'd try to put a song in a link with their name, though not necessarily from Merrily We Roll Along. In alphabetical order:


Anne never would give me something she's working on, but I know she's been writing and helping feed the Occupy Wall Street protesters.


Burstein currently plays Buddy Plummer opposite Bernadette Peters in Eric Schaeffer's acclaimed revival of Sondheim's Follies on Broadway through Jan. 22.


Callaway and her sister, Ann Hampton Callaway, will co-host the annual Yuletide Celebration with the Indianapolis Symphony in Indianapolis from Dec. 2–23. She's almost always performing somewhere. Check out her Facebook Fan Appreciation page for information.


Pinkins appears in the play Milk Like Sugar at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater through Nov. 27.


Unexpected Joy, Russell's new musical with composer Janet Hood, will have its first reading in early December.


Skinner is playing Mrs. Wilkinson in the 2009 Tony-winning best musical Billy Elliot at the Imperial Theatre through its closing Jan. 8.

Thanks to all of them for helping me out.

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You made it! I know this was a huge undertaking - thanks for such a thorough tribute, and thanks as well to all the the people who took the time to share their recollections.

There are a quite a few films, and a handful of plays, that have survived a rocky debut and gone on to be regarded in classics. It's a much rarer feat with musicals - a case can be made for Merrily as the most well-regarded "flop" of all time - as your piece attests, it's certainly had the longest legs. Not bad for a show that ran less than a month...
Thanks for this wonderful elucidation of Merrily's history. I hope it was as pleasurable to write and research this as it was to read it. Bravo!
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