MERRILY ROLLING AGAIN, ROLLING AGAIN By Peter Filichia
After the end of each song, no theatergoer shouted “Whooo!”
None of the performers held a note for an inordinately long length of time, so no attendee was moved to scream at the halfway mark.
Perhaps it was an off performance, you say? No, the applause after each song was hearty and commensurate with the achievement that each performer had solidly earned.
But musicals by Stephen Sondheim always get sophisticated audiences, don’t they – if they get audiences at all.
They sure weren’t there in 1981, when MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG endured poisonous word of mouth throughout its five weeks of previews and two weeks of official performances.
Yet these days, legions of musical theater aficionados have been in full force at New York Theatre Workshop to see this most recent iteration of MERRILY. They’ve entered the playhouse after they’ve given long, pity-filled glances at those standing in the inordinately lengthy line on West 4th Street. These are the would-be ticket-buyers who, God forgive them, wish that those who reserved seats could suddenly experience a catastrophe or two so that they could happily take their place.
Those who did get in proved they knew Sondheim’s score. For after Daniel Radcliffe had delivered 67 lines and 164 words of Charley Kringas’ “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” – and then suddenly stopped – no one applauded. Why didn’t they, given that Radcliffe had done so well by the difficult song?
Because these theatergoers knew from either a previous production or – far more likely – the magnificent original cast album that Sondheim had given Charley many more words, lines and verses that would come after some dialogue.
When Radcliffe did finally finish, the tidal wave of applause erupted. Good that it did, for the young actor not only deserved the approval, but also needed the time to catch his breath after such a demanding workout.
Original cast album owners who haven’t kept up with MERRILY’s ever-changing script and score may have been surprised not to hear “Behind the Hills of Tomorrow,” the stirring school anthem, as well as composer-turned-mogul Franklin’s paean to a life that’s both “Rich and Happy.” No, you must rely on the album to hear those, for in Sondheim and book writer George Furth’s many revisits and rewrites, these songs, fine as they are, have been excised.
Now, instead of having Frank catalogue his achievements, his party guests do it for him. “That Frank!” they exclaim with admiration and envy. The best lyric tells us that Frank “has a wife who is gorgeous and a son who’s straight.” That’s Hollywood for you; in most of the country, people would take for granted that a son would automatically not be gay. In La-La-Land, it’s hardly a foregone conclusion.
Going back a few years in time, we see Mary Flynn pouring out her heart to old friend Charley, mourning that “Nothing’s the way that it was.” Lest it seem to be Sondheim’s own personal complaint about changing times, mores and tastes, he does admit at song’s end that everybody sees the past “the way it never, ever was.” What’s not the way that it was is Mary’s outlook on life, considering how disappointed she’s been at the way it’s turned out.
Returning to a happier time, we rejoice in the three “Old Friends” as they celebrate how terrific a team they’ve become, to a melody worthy of a Golden Age Broadway show song. Midway through the song, though, Sondheim brings in the dissonance through a discussion that’s about to escalate into a full-blown argument – until they return to the jaunty melody in order to pretend that they’re still good friends.
(We know better.)
“Not a Day Goes By” is considered one of Sondheim’s strongest ballads. Although Frank’s ex-wife Beth now sings it both times in the revival, it was mostly Frank’s song in the original. Either way, it’s a stunner.
Mary gets brassy in the brass-tacks number “Now You Know,” in which she lays down the law, the rules of life and the ensuing unfairness. The line “Saints get shot” may be an overstatement, but anyone who’s lived through any kind of life knows from experience that Mary is basically telling the truth.
Oh, for happier times! Act Two gives them to us through “It’s a Hit,” referring to Frank and Charley’s uber-commercial musical MUSICAL HUSBANDS, originally described by Jason Alexander’s Joe Josephson as “FUNNY GIRL and FIDDLER and DOLLY combined.” If taken literally, that would mean a run of 7,434 performances (FUNNY GIRL,1,348; FIDDLER, 3,242; DOLLY, 2,844).
Given that we’re talking about 1964, when the longest-running musical was MY FAIR LADY at 2,717 performances, Frank and Charley’s show would have had to have been quite a hit to achieve that many. What’s more interesting is that today a run of 7,434 performances would merely put MUSICAL HUSBANDS in fifth place – and not for long. Come April, WICKED would stomp it to sixth.
“Good Thing Going” was Frank and Charley’s first hit song. In reality, a very different Frank – one named Sinatra – thought it worthy enough to record it. In the MERRILY rewrite, his rendition is now part of the show.
Next to “A Little Priest” from SWEENEY, “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” may be Sondheim’s most clever piece. It brilliantly spoofs the many Kennedys that dominated the news in the early ‘60s. But wasn’t Sondheim lucky that the matriarch of the family was named Rose, so he could get in a “rows and rows and rows” joke? But the song is also the type of topical material that was heard back then in such smart supper clubs as Upstairs at the Downstairs (slightly amended here to Upstairs at the Downtown).
If that isn’t achievement enough, there’s “Opening Doors,” in which Frank, Charley and Mary’s inability to do just that leads to the revue FRANKLY FRANK and the Kennedy send-up. Here’s where Jason Alexander got his chance to shine as a producer who admits that “Maybe it’s me” in not appreciating the material. Maybe it is, but who suffers as a result?
The song that Frank and Charley audition – “Who Wants to Live in New York?” – bears a great resemblance to a song Sondheim had written more than a quarter-century earlier: “What More Do I Need?” was earmarked for his almost-got-to-Broadway musical SATURDAY NIGHT. It was first recorded by the ever-enchanting Liz Callaway; you can hear it on A STEPHEN SONDHEIM EVENING.
Great songs all. And to think that after the 1981 MERRILY shuttered, there was talk of not bothering to record the show. A musical has a better chance of selling recordings after people have seen it, and with the MERRILY calling it a life after only two weeks, there went that segment of the record-buying population.
Ah, but MERRILY was Sondheim, after all. And his previous show had been SWEENEY TODD, so this one had to have some merit, right?
… Or had he suddenly run dry …?
Great Grammy-winning record producer Thomas Z. Shepard certainly didn’t think so. He brought the cast into the studio the day after the closing – and not just because he shared a surname with the show’s leading character. This man knows worth when he hears it.
As a result of the cast album, everyone from the Sondheimers to Schadenfreuders had to hear this MERRILY once the album debuted on March 1, 1982. Many were surprised, not merely because the score was extraordinarily good, but because Sondheim had written more warmly and affectionately than ever before.
That brings us to the score’s final number. Here Sondheim remembered what he and his colleagues felt when they were just starting out. The story goes that he and Hal Prince met in their twenties and truly believed that together they could “send them reeling.” Indeed they did, collaborating on four Tony-winning musicals (A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, COMPANY, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, SWEENEY TODD), one that must have just missed the prize by a wisp of a whisker (FOLLIES), and, for better or worse, MERRILY, too.
Hence the stirring “Our Time” that ends the show. Now it’s MERRILY’s time in New York and will continue to be as it wends its way to Broadway in the fall. This gives you time to brush up on the original cast album, so you won’t prematurely clap when Daniel Radcliffe finishes the first section of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.