In the nearly four decades I have been reviewing theater I have seen shows revived, altered, sometimes but seldom improved. But never --- until last night -- have I seen one totally, gloriously reborn.
That show is Stephen Sondheim's longtime problem child "Merrily We Roll Along," which initially had a book by George Furth. The version unveiled Wednesday night at City Center Encores! has a book rewritten by Furth for a 1993 British production, then further revised by James Lapine, who also directed it.
Over the years I have disparaged Lapine's direction but his witty, dextrous use of projections and his understanding of its difficult subject made the 2010 "Sondheim on Sondheim" an unexpectedly moving revue. In "Merrily, his theatrical prowess has made what initially seemed a chilly experiment in telling a story backwards into a profoundly emotional experience.
I have always remembered the original opening night, back in November of 1981 as one of the most cheerless evenings I have ever spent in the theater.
In those days the critics rarely attended the opening. Daily newspapers no longer considered a Broadway opening a valid reason for holding the presses. Since 1979, when Walter Kerr resumed daily reviewing at the Times on the condition he could attend one of the final previews, the other critics followed suit. Kerr no longer wanted the pressure of dashing back to the office and filing a revue on a tight deadline (though it is extraordinary to see how fine the writing was back in the days when he did.)
In the case of the Prince-Sondheim shows, at least as far back as "Pacific Overtures," critics were invited to attend not one but two previews in order to clarify their thoughts about complicated works. But in the case of "Merrily," which did not have an out-of-town tryout, critics could only attend opening night. "Merrily" had been in previews for six weeks, word of mouth had been extremely negative and the opening night audience could not in conscience pretend that this would be a festive occasion.
Those of us in the press had to scurry up the aisle trying to avoid the painful gazes of those trying to predict what the notices would be.
A year before "Merrily" opened I had interviewed Harold Prince, its director, who explained its concept to me. The cast would consist of very young, unknown performers. That way the audience could see the unhappy things that were happening to the characters but subconsciously could see that young people might make other, happier choices. (Years later I mentioned this to Michael Bennett, who choreographed several of their early shows. "Yes," he said, "Hal and Steve sit around talking about the text and the subtext and my poor mother comes and doesn't know what the f--k is going on.")
Someone who worked on the original production once told me that in its early stages, despite its bleak plot, "Merrily" was discussed as a "Mickey and Judy" show. All these promising images of what the show would be never jelled.
You knew the evening would be problematic as soon as the curtain rose on a set that consisted essentially of black bleachers. The cast wore black pants and black T-shirts with white lettering that explained who they were -- Dancer, Photographer, Waiter. The T-shirts, intended to clarify the characters, instead made them abstractions.
What Lapine has done is to give the evening an emotional weight that, given the brittleness of the original production, seems almost inconceivable.
Like the original set, the current one, by John Lee Beatty, is quite simple -- a huge rectangular black box on top of which sits the orchestra. Even in the original production Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations contributed luster to an otherwise lackluster evening. He has totally redone the orchestrations for a smaller but equally dazzling band led by Rob Berman.
Against the black base underneath the orchestra Lapine begins the show by projecting a splendid montage of images of the period covered-- the late '50s up until 1981. We see the couple that symbolized the feeling of hope that filled America at the beginning of the fateful '60s, Jack and Jackie -- significantly, on the day those hopes were dashed. We see a group of '70s feminists hailing Roe v. Wade. We see images of man in space. We see the Beatles.
Into this time frame Lapine wittily inserts a parody of Arnold Newman's iconic photographic of Stravinsky framed by the lid of a grand piano. Here the composer is the show's central character, composer Franklin Shepard.
The plot follows Shepard and his two closest friends, Mary, a novelist, and Charlie, a playwright who writes lyrics for Shepard in their early years. When we begin, in 1981, Shepard has traded his success as a writer for greater financial rewards as a Hollywood producer. Mary, after a literary triumph with one book, has become a hopeless alcoholic. Only Charlie maintains his youthful idealism, though his anger at his former partner has severed their once close friendship.
We trace this trio back to the night they met in November of 1957, all young, quasi-starving artists on the roof of a Morningside Heights brownstone waiting to see the flickering light of Sputnik as it passes overhead. This hope-filled beginning gives the often savagely witty, dark show an unexpectedly warm and happy ending.
Moving backwards, scenes of disillusionment and reprisal are followed by scenes of early love and success. We watch a succession of Shepard's failed relationships with women. His strongest love is Beth, whom he marries when they're both young and uncomplicated.
At the end of the first act, when they are about to divorce, he asks if she still loves him. She sings one of Sondheim's simplest, most powerful songs, "Not a Day Goes By." But the beauty of the melody is weighed down by her bitterness at how he has treated her. Close to the end of the show we jump back to their wedding, when she sings the song with a sense of joy and wonderment.
Although the tone of "Merrily We Rolll Along" (based on a Kaufman and Hart play that flopped in the '30s) is often acid and satiric, this new version brims with a poignancy and humanity. Where the original had an off-putting iciness, this version envelops you emotionally.
The cast is unusually strong. As Shepard, Colin Donnell never minimizes what is a very calculating, callous character but, perhaps because of a strong early scene with his eight-year-old son (beautifully played by Zachary Unger) and perhaps because he is such an appealing actor, we never cease to care about him.
Lin-Manuel Miranda (the composer of "In the Heights") is sensational as his constantly disappointed friend Charlie. He sings the caustic "Franklin Shepard, Inc." with an infectious enthusiasm that moderates its anger. His touching duet, "Good Thing Going," with Donnell, has heartbreaking poignance.
Celia Keenan-Borger never overdoes the drunken, painfully truthful Mary. And she too sings beguilingly in "Old Friends." Betsy Wolfe sings both versions of "Not a Day Goes By" consummately. Elizabeth Stanley shows us a show biz gold-digger with bravura but she also performs the sad "Growing Up" with considerable depth. Adam Grupper is marvelous as the wealthy philistine who helps Shepard's career.
Carefully chosen projections amplify the emotions throughout the evening, often by awaking historical moments with great resonance. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes wittily capture the changing moods of the times. Ken Billington's lighting amplifies the emotional textures of the scenes beautifully.
"Merrily We Roll Along" has been undergoing revisions ever since the original production closed after a brief two-week run. This production seems the fulfillment of the promise that was always in the score. It is a powerful reminder of what our musical theater can be at its best.