Actors who have appeared in a Stephen Sondheim Broadway premiere know that—whether the original production was a critical failure or success, a commercial smash or flop—they have a credit on their resume that will not die. Certainly Jim Walton, the original star of 1981's ill fated Merrily We Roll Along, is aware of this phenomenon. When he was promoted during previews to the lead role of the cynical, compromised composer Franklin Shepard he may have imagined he was getting the break of a lifetime. But the difficult, backward-traveling Kaufman-and-Hart-inspired piece resisted the creative efforts of its creators, Sondheim, librettist George Furth and director Harold Prince, and closed after only 52 previews and 16 performances. The musical's afterlife, however, has been nothing short of remarkable. Surely few Broadway disasters have received the loving and continued ministrations Merrily has, with La Jolla, York Theatre Company, Arena Stage, the Donmar Warehouse and, most recently, the Kennedy Center, all lavishing their time, energy and cash on major revised revivals. On Sept. 30 (21 years, minus one day, since the premiere's first Broadway preview), theatregoers will be treated to one more look, as the original cast and crew gather at the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts for a one-night-only concert performance of the original version of the script and score. Walton—who, since Merrily, has appeared on Broadway in Stardust, The Music Man and another go at Sondheim, as Anthony in the 1989 revival of Sweeney Todd—talked with Playbill On-Line's Robert Simonson about the historically and emotionally charged event.
Playbill On-Line: Merrily We Roll Along was anything but successful in its Broadway debut, but over the past 20 years it's become a prestigious credit to have on your resume.
Jim Walton: I think so. It's certainly been revived a number of times, and revised a number of times.
PBOL: People refuse to forget about the show. What do you think of that legacy?
JW: I'm grateful and honored to be a part of it and to have been connected with Sondheim's career at all. This concert is amazing. The themes of the show—time travel, looking back, having a career in the arts—are perfect for this revival concert.
PBOL: How did the concert come about?
JW: Lonny Price is a dear friend of mine. We had spoken of wanting to do a 20-year reunion concert, because there are lyrics in the show about "20 years from now we'll come back." And also the score is so fantastic—what a great show to do a musical concert of. And sure enough, he made it happen through Musical Theatre Works, where he is artistic director. I think it's largely due to Lonny.
PBOL: I understand almost everyone in the original production is involved in this. Who are the exceptions?
JW: I heard there are two or three that aren't going to make it, but I don't know who or why. PBOL: What is the nature of the rehearsal process?
JW: We're going to rehearse for about a week, but most of the cast will come in for just four days before the event. Lonny and Ann Morrison and I will be rehearsing for an additional three days or so. I'm already going over the material, just because there's a lot and it was 20 years ago.
PBOL: What is it like going over the score after so long?
JW: It's wonderful. I'm a huge fan of Sondheim's work anyway. When I hear any of it years later, it resonates more deeply within me because of my experiences in life. My heavens, it's really profound now.
PBOL: Are there some passages that you might approach differently than you did 20 years ago?
JW: Oh, yes, heavens, yes! My approach to it 20 years ago was extremely rapid, because I was cast in a smaller part in the show originally, and graduated to the lead. I believe it was five days, but I remember it being four days to learn the role. They told me on a Tuesday and I went on on a Saturday.
PBOL: At least you'll get seven days this time.
JW: [Laughs] Yeah. This will be twice the rehearsal period for me! My approach will certainly be different. And it's a different presentation of the show. It's not the book. We're not doing much of the libretto. It's mainly the songs. I think Jason Alexander is going to host it and play his part, Joe Josephson. The book will basically be him narrating and telling anecdotes, I'm sure.
PBOL: Have you seen any of the many revivals of Merrily?
JW: I've only seen one. The one at Arena Stage. I think it was the second one that happened. Victor Garber, Chip Zien were in it. And of course I sat there, in the midst of my own feelings of regret and excitement...and thought, "I should have done it like Victor Garber"—all those really self-consumed feelings that actors are accustomed to. It was hard for me to separate my feelings from it. I was in the stew of my own goo.
PBOL: You say you're still friends with Lonny. Have you stayed in touch with others in the cast?
JW: A little bit with Liz Callaway. We've worked together twice since then. I've seen Ann Morrison just a couple of times. I worked with Maryrose Wood. She's also a writer now and she wrote a Gershwin concert revue I did several years ago. Ninety percent of the people I haven't seen since then. The deepest relationship I had was with Lonny. Lonny and I ironically went on after the show to write songs together, because I'm also a composer and he's a lyricist. [In the musical, Walton played a composer to Price's lyricist.] We wrote 10 to 20 songs together. We threw together a backer's audition for a one-act we wrote. This was years ago. But then our careers went different ways and it kind of faded. It was a learning experience.
PBOL: What is going on with your own show, Double Trouble?
JW: My brother Bob and I, in our restlessness as writers, wrote this show for ourselves. It's a two-hander where we play 10 characters. We've had two productions of it, one at Goodspeed at Chester and one at Stage One in Wichita. That was in March and April of this year. Right now, it's on the back burner. We'd like to do it here in New York and be done with it, and then either write something else or maybe tour with it.