In 1981, audiences weren’t ready for Merrily We Roll Along. Directed by Hal Prince with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the musical was highly anticipated…until it became a flop with critics and audiences, closing just 16 performances after opening night. Now rarely produced but currently playing in Los Angeles in a stellar production at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, it may finally be “our time” for this ambitious musical.
Merrily We Roll Along tells the story of three best friends in reverse—the action begins in 1976 and proceeds back to 1957, with the passage of time marked by lights displaying the year as well as transitional musical numbers performed by the ensemble. Based on a 1934 play of the same name, the action primarily follows Frank Shepherd (Aaron Lazar), a Broadway composer turned Hollywood producer. The musical opens on a stereotypical Hollywood party, where Frank has achieved mainstream success with his latest film, but abandoned his artistic dreams and alienated his closest friends in the process. As we travel back through the years, we see his writing partnership with his best friend Charley Kringas (Wayne Brady), a talented lyricist who would choose passion projects over financial success any day, and does. Rounding out their trio is Mary Flynn (Donna Vivino), a vivacious author turned alcoholic theater critic who has been secretly in love with Frank since the day they met.
One of the most popular audience complaints during the failed Broadway run was that the show was too confusing—the audience found it so difficult to keep track of the timeline and the characters that Prince literally resorted to dressing the cast in sweatshirts emblazoned with their characters’ names. Seeing this 2016 version, it is difficult to imagine so many people feeling that way, especially considering non-linear timelines seem to be all the rage in film, television, and theater these days. The lack of confusion is perhaps partially due to Michael Arden’s smart direction. Tony-nominated last year for the outstanding Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening, which also enjoyed a run at the Wallis Annenberg before a Broadway transfer, Arden once again proves himself to be one of musical theater’s most gifted up-and-coming directors. This is a complicated piece with a large cast and many moving parts, and he manages to keep the action streamlined while still adding artistic touches.
One interesting component of the staging is that characters who aren’t in the scene, but are still affected by the action, often stand on the sidelines, observing in an almost voyeuristic way as the drama unfolds. Also, while the three main actors do portray themselves during the entire 19 year period, a trio of significantly younger ensemble members who greatly resemble them often flit in and out of scenes, as if snapshots from Frank’s memories, shedding a nostalgic light on what once was. This comes full circle in a very poignant way in the final scene. During the transitions, Lazar portrays Frank as if he is watching from a distance in captive horror, as though having an out-of-body experience or playing back painful home movies, as the mistakes of his past taunt him.
The cast is exceptional, and their Broadway caliber talent allows the somewhat cumbersome running time of 2 hours and 40 minutes to pass in the blink of an eye. Frank is honestly a bit of a thankless role—the show does not paint him as even a bit sympathetic, and watching his life on rewind equates to reliving a series of bad decisions you can’t help but hate him for, but Lazar does an admirable job at attempting to humanize him. The true standouts, however, were Brady and Vivino. Brady’s comedic timing, particularly in the song “Franklin Shephard, Inc,” was spot on, and he seemed extremely comfortable in the role. Charley is the constant of the show, the one of the three who changes the least over time, and while far more sympathetic than Frank, it is important to note he is certainly not perfect, almost too dogged in his determination to never sell out. Vivino gets to portray what is arguably the most heartbreaking transformation of all and does so with stunning accuracy, and I only wish the show as written gave Mary more due and delved into her storyline a bit deeper. Her singing “Not a Day Goes By” at Frank’s wedding was the most gut-wrenching moment of the piece, but I wish the disappointments in her life aside from her unrequited love for Frank were more than just alluded to. Rounding out the principal cast are Whitney Bashor as Frank’s ingenue wife, Beth, Saycon Sengbloh as Broadway diva Gussie Carnegie, who also becomes intimately involved with Frank, and Amir Talai as Gussie’s husband Joe Josephson, a Broadway producer who gives Frank and Charley their first big break.
For any fan of Sondheim, this show is a must-see. While it is not among his best known works, the beautiful, complex score features all of the hallmarks he is famous for, and includes the often-performed “Not a Day Goes By.” The biggest hurdle to get past with Merrily We Roll Along is that it is a rather depressing, cynical take on friendship and human nature. Ironically, because of the inverted time structure, the show finishes with the most unhappy happy ending ever—the final scene is full of optimism, but it is impossible to feel uplifted because we already know how thoroughly shattered everything becomes. While I am sure some will argue too many characters are ultimately unlikable, I still found plenty to connect to and care about, and to be fair, Sondheim is not exactly known for inspirational, joyous works. Even if the overall message is a downer, there is something about a story of friends growing up, sometimes growing apart, and realizing, changing, and/or abandoning dreams that is so universal you can’t help but feel maybe this musical’s original debut was simply before its time. Fortunately, there’s no time like the present, and it is now in incredibly capable hands.
Merrily We Roll Along runs at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills through December 18th. Tickets range from $39-$99 and can be purchased here. If you want to hear more about the interesting story of Merrily We Roll Along, check out the documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, now playing in select cities.