ON THE RECORD: The Encores! Cast Album of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along

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17 Jul 2012

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column discusses the cast album of the New York City Center Encores! production of Merrily We Roll Along, featuring Colin Donnell, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Lin-Manuel Miranda and new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick.


Merrily We Roll Along [PS Classics]

Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along has had phrases like "troubled," "misbegotten" and "fascinating-but-unworkable" attached to it for so long that one might think that at some point they officially changed the title to Sondheim's Fascinating-But-Unworkable Merrily We Roll Along. It is now just as officially time to retire that sentiment, with this past February's production at City Center Encores! serving as Exhibit A and the resulting PS Classics two-disc cast recording serving as Exhibit B. (I originally labeled the recording "Exhibit 1," but changed it to "B" to avoid confusing readers. Any true Sondheimite knows, however, that A is 1 and 1 is 2.)

Merrily We Roll Along has been rewritten more times than Candide, I suppose. Or maybe not. (These two musicals make an interesting pair, don't you think?) At any rate, Merrily We Roll Along has undergone wholesale changes since it folded after an ignominious 16 performances back in November 1981. And even before. It became clear at the very first preview that the show was — well, fascinating but unworkable. Sondheim, Furth and director Hal Prince tried to rework it, with constant and in some cases severe changes throughout the previews (which eventually grew to an almost but not quite record-setting 52).

But there is only so much you can do, fixin'-wise, when the production is up and running. If the problems extend to the production concept and the set, and the casting, you are stuck sticking band-aids on an iceberg. If you know what I mean.

Merrily failed despite all rescue attempts, leaving a figurative hole in the spirit of the authors. The original cast album, recorded just after the closing, was at once a balm and an ache; how could something that sounds this good turn out this bad?

Sondheim rebounded in 1984 with a new librettist/director, James Lapine. The pair created the Pulitzer-winning Sunday in the Park with George which — not coincidentally — underwent an extended public workshop at Playwrights Horizons, some nine months prior to the Broadway production. At the start of the workshop, Sunday wasn't quite ready; they only managed to get to the second act for the final three of twenty-five performances. Which is to say that if Sunday had opened cold — with audiences bringing Broadway expectations and paying Broadway prices at the first preview, like at Merrily — they might have also found themselves in the proverbial soup.

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