Merrily We Roll Along, the 1981 musical by George Furth and Stephen Sondheim based on a 1934 play by Kaufman and Hart, has produced so many American songbook standards that some people are surprised to learn that the show was a flop in its original Broadway iteration. This new production, running two weeks at the Encores! semi-staged series at City Center, avoids such ignominy. Crisply directed by frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, the evening overcomes a somewhat bumpy first act to become an affecting, musically satisfying production.
This isn’t quite the Merrily of one’s dreams. The chemistry of the principal characters – Colin Donnell as Franklin Shepard, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charley Kringas, and Celia Kennan-Bolger as Mary Flynn – does not match that between the trio in my most memorable Merrily, between Michael Hayden, Raul Esparza, and Miriam Shor in a 2002 Kennedy Center production. Miranda is charming, though sometimes lacking in toughness. Kennan-Bolger is comically precise. Donnell is impeccable.
I have never seen a staging in which the musical’s structure, tinkered with frequently since the Broadway debut, made so much sense. Encompassing the period between 1957 and 1976, the story famously proceeds in reverse. It opens with Shepard as a rich and long-since-sold-out film producer, and ends with him and his former songwriting partner, Kringas, on a New York rooftop with their friend Mary, swollen with youthful idealism. Cumulatively, the story is a panorama of America at its post-war confident best before succumbing to Nixonian corruption.
Merrily is filled with what some of Sondheim’s detractors have called his “sour sentimentality”. Feelings of deep friendship and romantic passion are inevitably poisoned by alcoholic bitterness and showbiz greed. Such a mixture has never bothered me: who wants sentimentality served sickly sweet? What’s more, Sondheim is a master – rarely more so than in this show – at expressing how our feelings of deepest devotion are frequently just a situation away from anger.
Music director Rob Berman and a well-drilled orchestra provide the evening’s sonic landscape and the reverse-timeline projections of Wendall K Harrington furnish the photographic backdrop. As a Broadway diva and Shepard’s second wife, Elizabeth Stanley produced a memorable combination of both the aural and the visual. Alone among the principals, she was unafraid to express fluently the beauty of Sondheim’s melodies.