When Merrily We Roll Along opened in 1981, it spent just 12 days on Broadway and then rolled not so merrily right out of the Alvin Theatre, a disappointing flop if ever there was one! Ever since, it’s been remounted in various forms but never again on Broadway.
Now with the blessing of composer Stephen Sondheim, the Roundabout Theatre, along with the innovative Fiasco Theater, is taking a whack at the problematic tuner in a stripped-down, re-imagined off-Broadway production, and maybe this time it’s finally Broadway-ready.
In its original form, the show featured 27 actors and was complicated. It tells the story of three best friends spanning some 25 years, but there’s a gimmick: the scenes progress backwards in time. It starts in 1980 when the friendship has come to a woeful end and backtracks all the way to 1957 when they were three idealistic teenagers with the world at their feet. Over the years, we come to see how money, fame, and ambition drive them apart.
There are just six very talented cast members now. They all play various roles and the story has been re-worked, trimmed, and expanded to clarify the motivations and deepen the relationships. Under the seamless direction of Noah Brody, with choreography by Lorin Latarro, it's largely a success. It’s set in a props warehouse, perhaps symbolizing all the personal baggage that accumulates over the years.
Over the course of the intermission-less hour and 45 minutes, the saga of Frank, the sellout-composer-turned-Hollywood-producer, Charley, his songwriting partner whom he leaves behind, and Mary, an acerbic critic with a drinking problem, is far more compelling than previous incarnations.
Sondheim’s score, thanks to a terrific eight-piece band, sounds beautiful as ever with lyrics that paint the most detailed portraits in a single verse. If the performers don’t all have the most trained voices, they are first-rate actors who deliver each song with great clarity and naturalism.
Some problems remain; the dialogue can sound stilted, melodramatic even. But so strong is this company, we hardly notice the book’s flaws now. It took some 37 years, but Merrily can happily begin again.