Why Revive (Part 4): “Merrily We Roll Along”

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Why revive Merrily We Roll Along? For remuneration? Not remotely. The show was just about the biggest box office flop of Stephen Sondheim’s career; 16 Broadway performances and out in 1981. (There have, of course, been plenty of contenders for this distinction in the Sondheim fiscal failure firmament, virtually every one of them an extraordinary musical eminently worthy of original success and subsequent revival.)

Merrily has been revived plenty and always for the purpose of rebirth; here in New York, at intrepid regional theaters across America, across the UK too, and in London’s West End. One would need a road map to diagram all of the revisions undertaken by Sondheim and his librettist George Furth for these many revivals. Yet, none (and I saw a good number of them) could really be termed a reinvention. The reverse chronological structure of Merrily, beginning at the end and ending at the beginning, was never touched, as far as I know. The deployment of one cast to play both old and young versions of the central characters was similarly never reconsidered. (I’ve always wondered whether separate young and old casts, a’la Follies, might not be worth a shot.)

I adore the show and have never seen any reason to attempt to atone for its initial failure by trying to fix it. Fundamentally, Merrily works fine. And, fundamentally, Merrily is fatally flawed, which, to my mind, makes it all the more heartbreaking as a work of art. In a good way.

The latest incarnation, undertaken at Roundabout Theatre by the innovative, resident Fiasco Theater, is a revival of Merrily for the purpose of reinvention more than rebirth, which actually gives the show a chance to breath. No one in the tiny six-person Fiasco company is trying to make a born-again case for Merrily, they are merely attempting to make it work in a different way. That different way is both smaller and quieter than the original, which had a cast of 27 and a full-size pit orchestra wailing through some of Jonathan Tunick’s most sizzling orchestrations.

I once ran into Mr. Tunick and asked him what he was working on. With a sigh he replied: “Reductions.” No-one writes better orchestrations for large Broadway ensembles than Jonathan Tunick and no-one is better at “reducing” those orchestrations for smaller (more fiscally constrained) ensembles, as he has done here for Fiasco. The results offer extraordinary verisimilitude in their resemblance to the originals, though I’m here to tell you, nothing can compare with the sound of that pit band in Merrily’s original, brief-lived production. I mourn the loss here of both big ensembles, actually, the one onstage (vocally) and the one in the pit, but I must admit that the results are a more jewel-like look at Merrily We Roll Along’s superbly tooled internal components, especially Sondheim’s sublime lyrics. They are rendered here at often slower tempos and with a conversational intimacy that not only luxuriates in their verbal dexterity (yet again) but also frequently takes your breath away with the stunning immediacy of their deeply felt emotions.

None of this is new but all of this has never been clearer. I was especially moved by my 16-year-old daughter, Lea’s reaction. Lea had never seen or heard of Merrily We Roll Along. She not only loved it, she cried through much of it. She later told me that she couldn’t imagine it being done any bigger. This size was just perfect.

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