I think most musical theatre fans know that Merrily We Roll Along will be receiving an Encores! production in February 2012. Directed by James LaPine, the show will star Colin Donnell as Frank, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Mary, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charley, Elizabeth Stanley as Gussie and Betsy Wolfe as Beth.
What is different to other Encores! runs is that this will not be a production of the original version of the show, but of the 1985 revised version of the show, as Stephen Sondheim confirmed on Playbill today:
Under Lapine’s direction, George (Furth) and I revised it, particularly the first half of the first act, in 1985, when Lapine did it at La Jolla [Playhouse], and this is essentially that version. I’m meeting Lapine tonight and it’s one of the things we’re going to talk about: which aspects of which version we’re going to use. It’ll essentially be the 1985 [script and score], which has additional songs, things like that. George and I got it the way we wanted to, finally, in the 1990s when we did it in Leicester, England, and that’s the version that’s been done since. It was the version that was done down at the Kennedy Center in 2002, and that’s based on the Lapine version.
The article mentions the idea of a Broadway transfer in passing and I wonder what would happen then, if the 1990s version of the show is meant to be the “official” version. Will they make the changes to what gets done at Encores!? At any rate, it is nice to see this show get another high profile outing that could lead to a Broadway revival.
I’m one of the few people that can find things to like in even Sondheim’s less successful shows, and Merrily We Roll Along is probably the one I enjoy most. So I welcome any revival/revision. That said, I’ve only heard the original version of the score, so I can’t say too much about what’s been revised between then and now, but I completely trust Sondheim and Lapine to make it work.
Now, just some general thoughts about the show: I find Merrily We Roll Along to be perhaps the riskiest of Sondheim’s shows, because of the structure and I can imagine it being a tough sit for the audience. Though, it’s probably his only failure that still managed to crank out several well-known standards. Also, it’s always saddened me that the biggest problem with the show was the libretto. In Company, Furth wrote what I consider one of the top three best books of a musical, so what went wrong with Merrily We Roll Along? In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim is very vague on what made the book so mediocre, so I’d love to find out specifically what led to the constant revisions.
I’m so excited for this. I think we’re long overdue a good production of Merrily, and with Lapine at the helm and a cast of this calibre I wouldn’t rule out a Broadway transfer.
I have to say, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charley is one of the most exciting casting decisions I’ve seen in a very long time. I hope this freshness is shared by the whole production.
Broadway transfer please?
Miranda as Charley is AMAZING. I’m really excited to see how that turns out.
I think it’s clear that the biggest problem with the show was Hal Prince’s direction. This is certainly evident in the video footage that exists of the show and Prince himself acknowledges that he struggled with directing the piece. Problems with the book were most surely secondary to that and possibly even as a result of it. Prince, in his past collaborations with Sondheim, seems to have often been responsible for steering the writing of the piece as it was being created.
I still feel that the main problem with the libretto is its backwards nature (literally). Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great show and wonderfully constructed, but as history has shown, people just don’t get the fact that it’s going backwards. They didn’t get that even when it was a Kaufman and Hart play. We’ve had revivals that did everything but have pages fly off the calendar in reverse motion, and people still didn’t get it.
In my opinion, one of the things that people don’t like about the show is that they’re forced to feel sorry for the main character because of the structure — they watch this asshole Frank become innocent (thereby hitting the audience over the head with “He wasn’t always like this!” at a point when they no longer care because they’re being forced to remember it), rather than being able to sympathize with the anti-hero because he’s a decent guy turned into a creep by the world around him. People want to “want” to feel sorry for the main character, rather than being forced by rewinding the video just after something important happens (like Uncle Mortie stopping the movie to remind you the villain was once a nice guy). It’s incredibly frustrating, and it shuts out the audience.
I know it’s Sondheim, I know he’s “the greatest,” I know it’s innovative … I don’t give a flying shit, put the damn thing back to front so people can actually appreciate the story. You want them to care about him? Switch the damn thing round, and restore the graduation speech book-ends when that’s done so that you’ve got a coherent whole at the end of the day. You can slave over an oatmeal all you want in hopes of making it a souffle, but it won’t ever be one unless you drastically change the ingredients.