Merrily We Roll Along: Yesterday Is Gone
There’s incredible buzz in the packed City Center until the house lights dim. How quiet the chamber is! What anticipation there is here!
But as soon as the curtain rises, we’re whooping it up, because we know we’re about to hear a whoppingly large orchestra play the last great Broadway overture: the one that belongs to Merrily We Roll Along.
Actually, it isn’t quite the overture that we know from our original cast albums. The big change is the absence of “Rich and Happy,” reminding us that that song has been dropped. It’s Exhibit A that what we’ll now see at Encores! is not quite the musical that that composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim originally wrote with bookwriter George Furth. For all their troubles, they saw it close at the Alvin on Nov. 28, 1981 after only 52 previews and 16 performances. Now we’ll see the reworked version that Sondheim and Furth later did with director James Lapine, who shepherded the Franklin Shepard musical to a greater respectability.
All right, the 23-piece orchestra doesn’t sound as lush as the original, but it’s still pretty terrific. I’m feeling that the audience will applaud when the overture reaches “Old Friends,” because the show is an old friend to so many. As it turns out, I’m right.
During the overture, we also have a good time with the newly assembled video montage. There are Franklin Shepard (Colin Donnell), Mary Flynn (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Charley Kringas (Lin-Manuel Miranda) pictured four times on those vertical strips you get when you go into one of those booths, pull the curtain and put in your money. There are photo-shopped items (a review headlined “Frankly Frank is Frankly Fabulous” and a news item: “Audiences say ‘I Do’ to Musical Husbands”) as well as historical footage of JFK, Nixon and others that let us know we’ll be going from 1976 all the way back to 1957.
“Yesterday is gone” are now the first words heard, and they are apt ones. Whatever disappointment Merrily unleashed on New York in 1981 has long been forgiven. We all now realize that Company, Follies, Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney were awfully tough acts to follow. Besides, Sondheim and director and co-producer Harold Prince were then out to give us a musical comedy. Granted, it had a sting to it, but a “musical comedy” ultimately seemed less ambitious than their other masterpieces – and therefore less satisfying to us who expected a new miracle each time they gave us a new show.
As we get to Frank’s posh Bel-Air home, we soon see another metaphor at work. “Rich and Happy” originally was set on the opening night of a bomb he’d produced, as all his “friends” were happy to say behind his back. Now “That Frank” shows that Frank’s movie is a big hit, and everyone is celebrating with him. So too, the Merrily that was a former flop is now giving way to a hit.
In detailing Frank’s success, the guests get in one of Sondheim’s more delicious new lyrics: that Frank “has a wife who is gorgeous and a son who’s straight.” Leave it to a Hollywood crowd not to take heterosexuality for granted.
Matters get tense when a guest mentions Charley Kringas’ new Pulitzer Prize-winner Take a Left. Suddenly the chatty guests are silent, except for Mary, who isn’t above mentioning that she, Frank and Charley were once close. Now they’re no longer tight – but she certainly is. Alas, Celia Keenan-Bolger is excessive even considering that she must play a hopeless alcoholic. (We had to hope that she wouldn’t lay it on so thick for the rest of the show, but in fact she did. Don’t be surprised if you later read that she was ill this week, because her voice wasn’t up to her usual standard.)
Off to the TV studio, where we get news of the end of the Vietnam War and the Roe v. Wade decision. Both are a little dour for this kind of musical, but at least the latter news item benefits from some dramatic irony when the anchorwoman says, “A longtime controversy is now ended.”
Charley and Frank are about to go on TV, with Mary fussing over them. Those who only saw the original production may seem surprised that Joe Josephson, once Broadway’s premier producer (and ex-husband to Gussie, who’s about to be the ex-wife of Frank), shows up looking down and out and begging Gussie for a loan. But take it from someone who read the script long before it made it to the Alvin: this element was in the show once upon a time.
But was the line “What happens if we finish this show, we get it on, and they say it’s no good?” originally in the script? Frank says it to Charley when they spar about whether to work on Broadway or in Hollywood. One must wonder if Furth put it in only after the Broadway failure. Whether or not he did, the audience grunts at more dramatic irony.
It purrs, however, when Charley says in the middle of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” “I’m surprised at how much I like this.” He means appearing on TV, but the audience is increasingly having that feeling about the show they’re seeing.
Miranda splendidly performs the difficult tour-de-force, and is rewarded with the type of applause that starts big, fades a bit -- and then gets bigger than it originally was. Bravo!
In 1981, many carped that Shepard was even more of a cipher than Bobby in Company. Perhaps that’s why Sondheim later gave Frank “Growing Up.” Donnell, who resembles Gene Kelly but taller, offers the right introspection on the song’s best line: “Why is it old friends don’t want old friends to change?”
Certainly Beth, Frank’s first wife, has an answer to that question. Betsy Wolfe’s “Not a Day Goes By” is right up there with the best of them, which is really saying something considering how many, many artists have recorded this song. She sings it, of course, while they’re outside the courthouse in which they’ll get their divorce.
Frank needs a little time to rebound while his friends try to cheer him, but he eventually does. “We’ll do a new show,” he sings, “maybe one that’s all about divorces.” Hmmm, is this where Cy Coleman and A.E. Hotchner got the idea for Welcome to the Club, their 1989 musical flop about divorces and alimony? Their show would suggest that Frank doesn’t have all the answers where musical theater is concerned.
A new ingredient is having Frank’s friend Tyler have him on his yacht, and Frank is smiling in nautical wear as the first act ends. Wouldn’t it be better if just before the blackout, Gussie joins him? We’ve seen their relationship progress and disintegrate, so we should see it moments after the divorce is final.
Act Two begins with Gussie’s singing “Good Thing Going,” which we heard earlier via a Frank Sinatra recording that establishes that it was a big hit. Ah, but here the way Gussie does it – a la Marilyn Monroe in “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” right down to a gaggle of boys around her -- shows the number at its vulgar worst. But that’s the point: Joe and Gussie took the lads’ best song, corrupted it and commissioned them to write a slam-bang, shake-your-breasts musical: the aforementioned Musical Husbands. The 1964 show is said to be “Fiddler, and Funny Girl and Dolly combined,” but don’t bet on its having the quality of any of them. That’s why Charley is still begging Frank to work on their more altruistic musical, Take a Left.
By now, we know that Charley eventually wrote it without Frank, and has scored without him. One of the assets of Merrily is that it does expertly connect the many dots we see in earlier and later scenes. Part of the fun of it is having our memory take us back and forth, causing us to say “Oh, yeah!” on many occasions. One example of many: at the party where Frank and Charley will audition their songs, Gussie takes Frank by the hand and says to his newlywed wife Beth, “You don’t mind if I kidnap him, do you?” What she means at the moment is that she’ll dominate his time and take him around to meet everyone. But we know that she eventually will indeed kidnap Frank when she becomes the second Mrs. Franklin Shepard.
Merrily has distinction in yet another way. Once the guys play and sing, “Good Thing Going,” Gussie insists that they play it for her guests once again. They do, but are incessantly interrupted by those who felt that once was enough, thank you. For decades, we’ve heard that the Big Song from a Musical often gets reprised so that an audience’s hearing it a second time will cement its love affair with it. And while we do hear the best song in Merrily reprised, notice that the encore is quite unorthodox, in that it isn’t even finished. How many other shows can claim that?
Donnell, Wolfe and Miranda are all charming in “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” and just as potent in “Opening Doors.” Lapine adds a visual joke here: given that Mary reports, “I met this musician,” Lapine has her bring him over to meet the guys. Moments later, when she says that she threw him out, he leaves the stage with his head hanging low.
Jason Alexander was terrific when playing Joe Josephson in this number, but Adam Grupper does him one better when urging the guys to write “a tune you can hum” – a joke that the Sondheim-savvy audience here enjoys, because they know how incessantly this charge has been leveled against him. The way Grupper swings on “bum-bum-bum-di-dum” is a delight to see and hear.
When all is said and sung, Merrily somewhat resembles Allegro, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first flop. It took one Joseph Taylor, Jr.’s from birth to professional success and disillisuionment. Thus, it became an increasingly bitter pill to swallow.
But Sondheim, collaborating with Furth, Prince -- and especially original Merrily We Roll Along play authors George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart – tells the story in reverse chronological order. This allows us to see people being nicer to each other as the show progresses, and not nastier.
Another irony: Sondheim worked on Allegro as a gofer, and has been saying for decades that all his life he’s been trying to fix it. I say that he and his collaborators did just that by writing Merrily We Roll Along.
— Peter Filichia