‘Merrily We Roll Along’ Theater Review: Stephen Sondheim Steps Backward

The composer’s most famous flop is now shorter and cast with only six actors. It still doesn’t work

Last Updated: February 20, 2019 @ 4:51 AM

The only thing theater fanatics like better than talking about great shows is great flops. Call it the Joe Allen Effect.

The Fiasco Theater’s revival of “Merrily We Roll Along,” which opened Tuesday at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, included a replica of the old Alvin Theatre marquee in its purposefully cluttered set design (by Derek McLane).

The Alvin (now the Neil Simon Theatre) is where this Stephen Sondheim and George Furth musical opened in November 1981 and played 44 previews and only 16 regular performances. I saw one of those previews. Back in the 1970s, I saw every Sondheim musical in previews, then returned a month or two later to see what, if any, changes had been made.

Back then, we Sondheim acolytes had to contend with Clive Barnes, Walter Kerr and Richard Eder never giving the songwriter a good review in the New York Times. (Today, critics can’t rave enough about him, his every minor ditty considered a masterpiece.) “Merrily” shuttered too soon for me to see it twice. Never have I seen an audience put up such a wall of contempt for any show.

“Merrily,” based on an original play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, tells in reverse the break-up of three friends: a songwriting team, Frank and Charley, and their novelist-critic pal Mary. Hal Prince’s original staging of the musical cast it with young actors just out of high school. That worked for the opening number, set at a high school graduation, but Furth’s book quickly fast-forwards to a movie-premiere party in Bel-Air where the characters are now middle-aged, drunk, drugged up and basically miserable.

I remember the spectacle vividly. Watching “Merrily” in 1981 was like watching a high school production of “Company,” and the preview audience at the Alvin rejected it. Completely.

The Fiasco’s “Merrily,” like many revivals of the musical, wisely cast it with actors closer to the age of those Bel-Air partygoers. By the time the characters have regressed (what other word is there?) to their early 20s, we’ve had time to get to know them, make the adjustment and identify.

The problem is, I didn’t identify with the characters in 1981 and I don’t in 2019, even with age-appropriate actors in the roles. Worse, I don’t find them interesting on any level. Frank (Ben Steinfeld), Charley (Manu Narayan) and Mary (Jessie Austrian) are jaded, boozed up and bitter, and thanks to Furth’s book (drastically cut and tinkered with here) they are also witless.

Here’s how the sodden Mary tells off the Bel-Air crowd: “You are dull, you are dopey, you are dumb, you are despicable.” She left out “drippy.” Imagine Margo Channing or Edward Albee’s Martha telling off guests with mere alliteration.

Excised from the original book is a below-the-belt crack about aging movie stars who come to Broadway to resuscitate their career. I remember that anecdote getting real groans from the Alvin audience in 1981: Elizabeth Taylor had opened earlier that year in “Little Foxes.” But the nastiness, sans any gloss of sophistication, lingers in the current revival.

Over the years, critics like to defend Sondheim, saying that Furth’s book and Prince’s direction sabotaged his work. I’m not so sure that the score doesn’t contribute to problems stemming from the reverse narrative.

“Merrily” isn’t the first musical to break rules of storytelling. Back in 1949, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had the audacity to open “South Pacific” in an uncharacteristically intimate way, with a little number, “Dites-Moi Pourquoi,” sung in French by two children. Rodgers and Hammerstein got away with that gamble because, a few minutes later, they unleashed “Some Enchanted Evening.” The audience was smitten.

“Merrily” doesn’t get away with its audacious opening (a story told in reverse that begins with a lot of loud bores), in part, because Sondheim doesn’t deliver vintage Sondheim. We have to endure four scenes (and travel back in time 11 years) before we hear a strong tune like “Old Friends.” And even this soft-shoe is a retread of the soft-shoe “Side by Side by Side” from “Company.”

It’s followed by the exquisite “Not a Day Goes By.” But even this truly great number is undermined, being used to introduce a character, Frank’s first wife, Beth. Who is this woman Beth (Brittany Bradford radically overdramatizing the number) and why is she so pissed off at Frank?  The song is gone before we can identify the emotions that inspired it. Much later in the show, when “Not a Day Goes By” is reprised at Frank and Beth’s wedding, it’s genuinely haunting. However, the musical is almost over, and we’ve just suffered through a spoof on the Kennedys titled “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” which is bottom-drawer Sondheim.

While Frank and Charley are identified as geniuses who squander their talent, the only evidence we’re given of that talent, unfettered by commercial concerns, is that pale Kennedy number. If this is the best they’ve got, these guys wouldn’t be sneezed at in Hollywood.

Cutting a good half hour out of “Merrily” doesn’t solve the book’s problems. The cuts simply reduce each scene to a cliché: the drunken party, the extra-marital affair, the divorce, the pretentious cultural elite, the bitter in-laws.

Speaking of cuts, the original “Merrily” featured 27 performers, most of them making their Broadway debuts. The Fiasco production gives us six, which translates into double- and triple-casting for Paul L. Coffey, Emily Young and Bradford. Noah Brody’s direction doesn’t always make sense of what characters these three are playing. Brody handles the time element with greater ease but little finesse: Every few minutes, one of the actors yells out what year it’s supposed to be.

One segue back in time sees Austrian shedding several costumes (by Paloma Young and Ashley Rose Horton) and spitting out lots of stage vermouth as well as three — count ‘em three — olives. Here’s hoping the cast is well versed in the Heimlich maneuver.

Like Pal Joey, Frank needs to be a star turn — someone who is charming, sexy and irresistible despite the fact he sells out, turns on his friends and cheats on women. The Fiasco’s Frank does manage to engender some sympathy, but not because of anything Steinfeld does. Austrian’s Mary and Narayan’s Charley look so ready to bite off Frank’s head from the get-go that you can’t help but want to protect him.

“Merrily” is a reminder of that old Broadway arrogance which routinely turned the movies and TV into inferior stepchildren. Who relates to that swill today? Also completely sham is Mary’s humblebrag about her best-selling novel and how success and fame aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. Mary ought to write a novel or two that doesn’t get published. She’ll acquire an overnight appreciation of success and fame.