In a frankly emotional evening for both performers and audience, all but a handful of the original cast and crew of the 1981 Stephen Sondheim-Hal Prince cult classic collaboration, Merrily We Roll Along, gathered Sept. 30 at the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts for a one-night-only concert version of the score.
The event, which raised more than $200,000 for Musical Theatre Works, was hosted by actor Jason Alexander, the Merrily alumnus who has gone on to greatest fame. He described the checkered history and complex plot of the piece, and managed to get through his introductory notes—as he proudly noted—without crying.
Others weren't so stalwart. Most of the performers were between 15 and 25 at the time of the fraught 1981 staging, and spent much of the evening suppressing a lump in their throat. Lonny Price—who played idealistic lyricist Charley Kringas and, as the artistic director of MTW, spearheaded the reunion—teared up during his virtuoso solo piece, "Franklin Shepard, Inc." And all three leads, Price, Jim Walton as Franklin Shepard and Ann Morrison as Mary Flynn, joyously hugged at the end of "Old Friends," lending the musical paean to longstanding friendship a double meaning.
The evening came into its own halfway through the first act with "Old Friends," which featured the sprightly and charming original choreography by Larry Fuller (the concert director Kathleen Marshall had the trio stop for a moment in mid-song to pant after the dancing, a nod to the fact they are no longer in their twenties). Another highlight came with the second act closer, "Now You Know," which marked Alexander's vocal entrance into the show. The audience burst into applause when the wry Morrison, still in fine voice, broke into the song's "wake up-and-smell-the-coffee" bridge. ("Well Now You Know/Life Is Crummy....Put Your Dimple Down/Now You Know").
Price poked some fun at Alexander during the second act's opener, "It's a Hit," in which the characters celebrate the birth of a hit show. Price's Charley worries that fame and money means he is selling out, to which Alexander's producer expresses his hope that they do sell out, in the box office sense. Price then smiled, grabbed Alexander's shoulders, and said "What I mean is sell out—Well you know"—a sly reference to the "Seinfeld" star and KFC pitchman's resounding success in Hollywood. Walton, still looking and sounding boyish, showed off his talents as a musician (he is a composer and pianist). He accompanied himself on several of the score's tunes, including "Growing Up," a song that was added after the original Broadway production and is not known by many fans of the show. The evening also reinserted two numbers cut from the ill-starred Broadway bow: "The Blob" and "Thank You for Coming" (the latter is the exit song for Frank, Charley and Beth following their 1960 cabaret act at The Upstairs Room at the Downtown Club).
The inclusion of lesser-known songs considerably beefed up the role of Gussie, played by Terry Finn, who is barely present on the show's famous original cast album. Gussie duets with Shepard on "Growing Up" and largely solos on "The Blob," a comic number about New York's cognoscenti.
Liz Callaway, filling in at the last minute for Sally Klein, played Shepard's first wife, Beth. As such, she got to sing a heartfelt version of "Not a Day Goes By" and teamed with Walton and Price on the Kennedy spoof "Bobby and Jackie and Jack," in which Walton tried on a JFK Boston accent and all three skipped to Irish step-dancing. Callaway, known for her crystalline voice and coveted later-career roles in Cats, Baby, Miss Saigon and The Spitfire Grill, sang — to chilling effect — the first line of the title song near the top of the show: "Yesterday is done..."
Also in attendance from the original crew were Paul Gemignani, the musical director, who conducted the on stage orchestra; orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, who, like Fuller, was in the audience; and even original production stage manager Beverley Randolph, who ran the benefit show from the wings. Casting agent Joanna Merlin, who gave the "kids" their jobs two decades ago, was also in the house.
For the climactic "Our Time" number, the formal wear of the cast was exchanged for the bold-colored t-shirts that were famously worn (and famously maligned) in the original production. As they had before, the shirts were labeled with the roles the actors played: "pal," "best friend," "Frank's next wife," "sound man," "agent," etc. A starry drop was lowered behind the orchestra. Sniffles could be heard in the auditorium.
Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince, the two towering figures who created the musical—and split for 20 years because of its commercial and critical failure—sat together in the crowd. Encouraged by closing remarks by an obviously moved Alexander and Price, and a standing ovation, the two men made their way to the stage. After greeting many of the members of the cast, they enveloped each other in a bear hug—a final healing and benediction of a long troubled, but certain-to-be-longer cherished show.