Wednesday, November 16, 2011

broadway birthday - MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG opened on Broadway 30 years ago today!

The enormously unfortunate flop Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along opened on Broadway 30 years ago today and ran for only 16 performances.  It was Sondheim's follow up show to his successful 1979 musical Sweeney Todd.

It was a somewhat daring show in that it told the story of three close friends but told the story in reverse starting in 1976 and ending in 1957.  It was an interesting idea but one that proved somewhat confusing to the audience.  That, along with the fact that the show seemed slightly on the low budget, less professional Broadway side, with the characters in the show almost all played by young college aged actors who wore basic t-shirts that said things like "best friend" to identify their relationship to one of the main characters, seem to be why it didn't run longer than 16 performances.  

Walton, Morrison and Price - note the t-shirt Walton
is wearing that says "Frank" on it and Price's that
says "Best Friend."
 It was also the last Sondheim show that Sondheim's long term director Hal Prince directed after many hits together.  They wouldn't collaborate on a show together for over 20 years after the failure of Merrily.

Fortunately the Sondheim score is rich with some of his most memorable songs. The fact that the score was preserved in a cast album made right after the show closed, by its completely energetic cast, was a godsend and a huge reason why the show has been revised and revived several times.

The story revolves around Frank, Charlie and Mary. They are three friends who met in college and over the years became successful in their own ways. When the show begins only two of them are speaking to each other and as the show unfolds, and we go back in time, we see what happened to fracture their relationships. We also see at the end of the show, which is when they first met, how young and hopeful they all were before fame and fortune took them on an alternate path sometimes far away from their original goals. The end of the show is especially heartbreaking, seeing how passionate, idealistic and hopeful they all are after we know what will ultimately happen to each of them once fame and ambition consume them.

The original Broadway cast starred Jim Walton as Frank, Lonny Price as Charlie and Ann Morrison as Mary. The cast also included Jason Alexander and in the ensemble Liz Callaway in her first Broadway show. The book was written by George Furth based on the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart of the same name.  Famous songs from the show include "Not a Day Goes By," "Good Thing Going," "Old Friends," "Franklin Shepherd Inc," ""Like It Was," and "Our Time."  There isn't a single song in the score that doesn't add something to the understanding of the characters or the plot.  It is one of my favorite Sondheim scores.

Playbill for the 1994 Off Broadway production

In 1985 a revised version of the show opened at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego with older actors playing the characters.  That production also eliminated and revised some of the original book and starred John Rubenstein as Frank, Chip Zien as Charlie and Heather MacRae as Mary.  This production also included a new song, "Growing Up," that further fleshed out the character of Frank.  Another revised version happened in DC in 1991 with Victor Garber as Frank, David Garrison as Charlie and Becky Ann Baker as Mary.  Marin Mazzie was Beth, Frank's wife, in both of those productions.

In 1994 an Off Broadway production of the show opened with Malcom Gets as Frank.  It was a well received production that also resulted in a cast recording of the revised version of the show, including the song "Growing Up."   In the Summer of 2002, the Kennedy Center in D.C. produced it's "Sondheim Celebration" which included six fully staged Sondheim shows produced in repertoire over a few months.  That production starred Raul Esparza as Charlie with Emily Skinner in one of the supporting parts.  Other productions have also happened in the UK (a 1992 production there also produced a cast recording) and around the world as the Sondheim score is simply one that people can't stay away from even with the fact of its short Broadway run.

Poster for the 2002 D.C. production

Two interesting upcoming productions are planned for early next year.  In February, John Doyle who directed the recent Broadway revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd is directing a production of Merrily at the same place where his version of Company started, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.  But before that production, New York's City Center Encore's is producing their semi staged concert version of the show in February for a two week run, which is longer than the usual runs for its other concert productions. That production will star Colin Donnell as Frank, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Mary and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charlie.  James Lapine, who directed the 1985 La Jolla production of the show, will direct the Encore's production.
Merrily We Roll Along is a show like many others where people will keep producing it in hopes to figure out and fix what was wrong or missing in other productions to make it into the hit show that so many know it deserves to be.

So Happy 30th Birthday Merrily We Roll Along, I know you'll keep "rolling along"!

Jim Walton performs "Growing Up" a song written for his character to sing that was written for the La Jolla Production four years after he appeared in the Original Broadway Cast.

Bernadette Peters sings 'Not a Day Goes By":

Raul Esparza performs "Franklin Shephard, Inc" from the 2002 Kennedy Center production:

the beautiful and heartbreaking end of the show "Our Time" from a foreign production of the show:

"Opening Doors" from a recent student production of the show:

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