You could say that Merrily We Roll Along is having a moment. As the subject of original cast member Lonny Price's new documentary Best Worst Thing That Could Have Happened, interest in the 1981 show that played only 16 Broadway performances and ended the partnership between Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim has been renewed.
“It’s our time,” says Michael Arden, director of the Los Angeles production of Merrily, quoting the show. “I’m glad it’s happening now. It’s in the zeitgeist in a way, but not planned at all.” Earlier this year, Arden earned his first Tony nomination for his direction of Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, which was so successful in its initial 99-seat Los Angeles run that it moved to the larger Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, CA before transferring to Broadway. For his follow up at the Wallis as their artist-in-residence, he tackles Merrily. Aside from its storied past, Merrily is a difficult musical to stage, in part, due to its reverse chronological order.
The story recounts songwriting partners, Franklin Shepard and Charley Kringas, and their other best friend, Mary Flynn, as they go from optimistic beginnings and struggles making ends meet to unhappy success—only backwards. “I’ve always found [Merrily] incredibly complex and captivating and puzzling, and I think the challenge of that drew me to it,” says Arden, who actually understudied Tony nominee Benjamin Walker’s Frank in their high school production of the show. “I love what it has to say about how people can change and how they do throughout life.”
The Stephen Sondheim musical, with a book by George Furth, opened in 1981 and closed after just 16 performances. “I think the press was hyper-critical of [director] Hal [Prince] and Stephen at the time, post their success of Sweeney Todd,” says Arden. “It was being reviewed and written about before it had opened.” Arden’s new approach addresses what did not work originally, and he also has the benefit of better timing. “I think it was ahead of its time and I hope that the way Michael has staged it and our interpretation of these characters will really give it a second life,” says Aaron Lazar, who plays Frank.
The show’s telling in reverse chronological order—beginning in the ‘70s and ending in the ‘50s—originally confused audiences and critics. Arden and the cast think audiences are now ready for the structure that was unconventional at the time. “There really isn’t a lot that hasn’t been done onstage at this point. It’s 2016,” says Wayne Brady, who plays Charley—the role originated by documentary-maker Price. “Even in film, the nonlinear storytelling device is almost old hat now with Memento and all those different movies and TV shows that use time travel to jump back and forth.”
Further contemporizing the show, Arden assembled a cast more diverse than may have been seen in the 1980s. In addition to Brady and Lazar, Donna Vivino plays Mary, Amir Talai is Joe (producer of Frank and Charley’s musicals), and Saycon Sengbloh (who met Arden on the awards circuit last season) is Frank’s second wife, Gussie. In considering how he would stage the show, Arden says, “I knew I wanted to think about Frank looking back on his life as a sort of Dickensian adventure, a trip back through his life, but the question always is: Why is he reliving it?” he says. He came up with a completely new framing device to answer this question, setting the show after Frank’s death, in purgatory. The perfect purgatory for a composer who dreamed of a life in show business? A theatre.
In set designer Dane Laffrey’s fully-realized backstage of a theatre—dressing room mirrors, stuffed racks of clothing, the lone ghost light—the cast remains onstage throughout the entire show. They change costumes and wigs in full view by the audience. Arden encouraged actors to treat this area as their true backstage space. The actors decorated with personal items, and also with cheat sheets on their mirrors to remind them of the time and place they are in as the show progresses. “I really wanted to empower the cast to let their homework happen onstage as well as off,” Arden says. That includes insight gleaned from the backwards (chronological) reading of the script Arden did with the full cast.
A show about show business, he also asked his cast to explore their own theatre memories, and to create some for their characters. “All of those visions have come back to me at different points,” says Lazar. “I’ll be standing onstage, and I’ll remember standing onstage as myself when I was nine years old in elementary school for the first time, and now I’m looking at a nine-year-old boy who’s in this show playing my character’s son, but also could be a younger version of me.”
While the actors looked deeply into themselves, they also had to build strong bonds with each other to reflect the years’ long friendships and dynamics in Merrily. “At the top of the show you have to feel all this history between all these people,” says Sengbloh. And even as Merrily takes on new life, no doubt the history of the show itself will resonate as we roll along.
Linda Buchwald is a New York-based arts journalist focusing on theatre and television. Follow her on Twitter @PataphysicalSci.