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

By Steven Suskin
July 17, 2012

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.



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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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Lonny Price in the original production
Photo by Martha Swope
With Sunday successfully launched, Lapine encouraged Sondheim and Furth to return to Merrily, working with them (as director) to assemble a new version that opened at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985. Gone was the original concept, the original framing device, and some of the original songs; these Sondheim replaced with new ones, derived from musical themes within the old. The 1985 Merrily was something of a success; it is mighty difficult for a high-profile Broadway flop to find subsequent productions, though, while memories remain fresh. Regional and non-profit theatres took up the La Jolla version, and the show began to find appreciative audiences. Key productions included a 1992 mounting at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester and one in 1994 at the York Theatre in New York; both of these resulted in cast albums. A 2000 mounting at London's Donmar Warehouse attracted further attention (and an Olivier Award), as did a full-scale Merrily as part of the Kennedy Center's grand Sondheim Festival in the summer of 2002.

This last production was pretty good, all told. But it was still Merrily We Roll Along, carrying with it the inborn problems that had always proven so troublesome. Perfectly satisfactory and more than reasonably entertaining, and what more can you expect?

Merrily came to Encores! as the first offering of this past season, with James Lapine once again directing. This was the first major production since the death of Furth in 2008, as a result of which Lapine might have felt more free to adapt the script. (Concert versions by definition require adaptation of the libretto; in this case, Lapine seems to have not only whittled things down but done some rewriting.) For whatever reasons, this Merrily We Roll Along — for the first time in my experience, at least — worked. No excuses required, no recap necessary of the long, not-so-merry road the show had rolled along for 25 years. Here was a production which entertained, which told a story that left you something to think about, and which practically smote you over the head with the richness of Sondheim's score. Yes, the same score we'd been hearing since 1985, but even so.

Celia Keenan-Bolger, Colin Donnell and Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Encores! production
photo by Martha Swope

The new cast recording packs an even stronger wallop. I've been hearing the "new" songs since 1985, now. (Why do we consider them new? They were written within four years of the opening, which makes them just a few blinks younger than the rest.) For the first time, for me anyway, songs like "That Frank" and "Growing Up" sound like they belong. And they enhance the show.

The performances are very good. Standing out is Celia-Keenan Bolger, who stepped into the role of Mary Flynn between the Off-Broadway and Broadway stints of Peter and the Starcatcher. (The 2012 Tony nominee Keenan-Bolger is wonderful as Molly — the only girl — in the play presently at the Atkinson, and the show is wonderful, too; take this as a plug in passing.) Here, as Mary, Keenan-Bolger is no child; she is as caustic and brittle as Dorothy Parker, after whom Kaufman & Hart patterned the role in the original, 1934 play version of Merrily. From her very first lines in "That Frank," this Mary commands attention while always shining the spotlight back on her old friend (and his shortcomings). Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author/star of In the Heights, might seem like a non-ideal choice for Frank's pal-and-lyricist Charley, a role which was so definitively created by Lonny Price. So much for type casting; Miranda is swell. He manages that breakdown-in-song called "Franklin Shepard, Inc." with aplomb, and is especially touching in "Good Thing Going" and "Opening Doors."

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Colin Donnell and Elizabeth Stanley
Photo by Joan Marcus
Which leaves us with the Frank of Colin Donnell, who played Billy Crocker opposite Sutton Foster in the recently departed Anything Goes. Frank is a thankless role, methinks; like Bobby in Sondheim & Furth's Company, he is the center of the story but not the center of attention. Frank is not an admirable character, certainly; but why do I feel that the songwriter liked Mary and Charley and Joe best? No matter. Donnell is perfectly okay on the recording, while the others stand out.

The Joe referenced above is the Broadway producer who wants a song you can hum. This role, too, is forever linked to its creator. The 22-year-old Jason Alexander — in a production full of young actors playing old, which was perhaps the most damaging conceptual choice in 1981 — was the glittering exception which showed how the thing could, just maybe, have worked. Here we have Adam Grupper, and he is thoroughly charming. There are additional strong contributions from Betsy Wolfe as Beth and Elizabeth Stanley as Gussie. Plus a small solo in one of the "Merrily" transitions from child actor Zachary Unger, who did a fine job as Franklin Jr. in his big scene at City Center. (He'll make his Broadway debut in the coming musical Chaplin.)

Orchestrator Jonathan Tunick has been on hand since the original production, but the orchestration situation has always been problematic. As new songs — and revised versions of old songs — came along, Tunick duly orchestrated them; but subsequent productions, in non-Broadway sized venues, used orchestras with considerably fewer players than the original. So all the musical changes over the years have been orchestrated for smaller orchestras. How do you do Merrily at City Center with 23 pieces when a considerable part of the show is orchestrated for only 13?

By reorchestrating all the "new" stuff for the same 23. Fortunately, Tunick is very much around and — as anyone who listens to this new recording will hear — writing as skillfully as ever. (Tunick doesn't look like he's 74, nor does he write like he's 74.) When starting the assignment, though, he realized that the original charts for the show — which are excellent, as attested to by the original 1981 cast album — had an underlying flaw. In a fascinating liner note, he explains that Merrily was described to him when he started work as "a lighthearted, ingenuous romp, like a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movie." This, in itself, indicates just how unworkable and unfixable the original concept was; by the time the creators realized the true nature of the show, it was too late to make the sort of changes that were necessary.

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James Lapine and Jonathan Tunick
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
In terms of orchestration, Tunick explains, this led him to select the wrong instruments for the pit. A "zany, artless frolic" for 1981 audiences, taking place over 20 years (ending in 1977)? The orchestrator, composer and musical director settled on an instrumentation capable of having a rock-like, contemporary sound. (In the same way that Company needed to sound contemporary.) This included an electric guitar and a Fender bass, which turned out to be all wrong for the show that Merrily became.

Given the opportunity by City Center, Tunick has totally reorchestrated the show that he by this point knows so well. While the original Broadway cast album sounds great — it did in 1981, and does today — this new recording sounds better. And not just in the orchestration, but in the playing. The whole thing, under the direction of Rob Berman, practically leaps off the disc. Listen to the overture, and listen to those trumpet players; the clarity, the distinct colors blending into a three-part choir. And listen to that featured tuba. The music sounds good, and the musicians sound good.

(Those of us you who know the original recording note-for-note might be startled by the final fanfare at the end of the overture. That clam — the high note that the trumpet player muffs — is gone. Imagine, we actually hear it now without the error and it sounds like something is missing!)

The glory of Merrily We Roll Along, though, is in Sondheim's score. While I've always found the existing cast albums endlessly interesting, this new one adds another element. The songs are not just good/enjoyable/intriguing/you-name-it; they are impressive. One after another. The big group numbers, like "That Frank," "Now You Know," "It's a Hit," "Opening Doors," "Our Time." And the smaller numbers, "Like It Was," "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," "Old Friends, "Growing Up," "Good Thing Going."

We are so used to considering Merrily We Roll Along fascinating-but-unworkable — and so used to being overwhelmed by the glories of Follies, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd — that we overlook the brilliance of the writing here. Listen to "Not a Day Goes By," which in this version is introduced by Beth, Frank's first wife. This is not a song of enduring love; it is a devastating cry of pain. The song is heard again — later in the show, but earlier in the story — at Frank and Beth's wedding. The celebratory love duet is punctured by a third voice, Mary's unrequited anguish of longing. (Is this stronger on the new recording because of Keenan-Bolger?) In any event, "Not a Day Goes By" is a remarkable piece of dramatic writing by the composer/lyricist.

We can thank PS Classics for recording this production, and for spreading it over two discs. This allows 89 minutes-worth, instead of the 67 on the Broadway album. All the music plus enough dialogue to give us a better sense of the motivations for the songs.

But we could go on and on. Let's just say Merrily We Roll Along now takes its rightful place on the Sondheim shelf.

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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)