Friday, January 20, 2012

"Merrily We Roll Along" Gets Its Miranda Right!

"Merrily We Roll Along" (book by George Furth, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) is one of those famous problem musicals. Although Sondheim's score includes "Not a Day Goes By" and "Good Thing Going," two of his best-known songs, the show only made it to 52 previews and 16 performances on Broadway in 1981, and since then, it's been revived sporadically with a lot of changes here and there and decent, if not spectacular, results.

One of the problems is that, like the Kaufman/Hart play it's based on, "Merrily" moves backwards. That means the same actors have to play 40-something at the beginning and 18 at the end. The other is that its theme is how fame and fortune ruin friendship, which is not exactly a cheery idea to leave audiences with.

When "Merrily" opens, we meet Franklin Shepard, Charlie Kringas and Mary Flynn when they are 40-ish, with songwriter and movie producer Franklin a big success in Hollywood, but his old pals Mary, a writer, and Charlie, Franklin's former songwriting partner, did not come along for the ride. As we go backwards in time, we see how their friendships splintered, how Frank's marriage broke up, and exactly how far from his early ideals Frank has strayed.

I've seen "Merrily" a few times, with mixed results. But personally, I love the music and, yes, the story of lives gone off the rails, early promise not fulfilled, and in general, asking the musical question "How did I get to be here?" It's a familiar Sondheim refrain, and I buy into every time. I am also a sucker for the backwards thing, so I was never bothered by when or where we were, plus the performers I saw were mostly 30-somethings, I think, as opposed to the fresh faces (young Jason Alexander and Liz Callaway, among them) used in the original production.

It's cool that "Merrily" is one of this year's Encores! choices, to play at City Centre in February, with Rob Berman as musical director. And it's even cooler that they have assembled a wonderful cast for the two weeks of performances. Encores! supposedly does staged readings, but they turn into far more than that, using pretty much all-out stagings and fully realized performances from people who seem like they've had more than a few rehearsals.

This time out, the handsome and charming Colin Donnell (you can catch him on youtube singing bits of "Anything Goes" without much effort) will play Frank, with sweet and lovely Celia Keenan-Bolger ("The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and "The Light in the Piazza") as Mary. The real kicker is who's playing Charlie, the good guy/good partner that Frank abandons in favor of fame. It's Lin-Manuel Miranda! Yes, that Lin-Manuel Miranda, famous for writing and starring in "In the Heights" and then doing a Sondheimy rap as a thank you speech when he won the Tony for it. He's irrepressible, adorable, and sure to steal the show as Charlie Kringas.

If you are lucky enough to be in New York when Encores! offers this "Merrily," you can find performance and ticket information about the production here.


  1. "Merrily" has had some interesting casts over the years, aside of course from the vast number of high-school and college productions it gets. The original cast had a leading trio who, however young, would go on to substantial careers: Jim Walton (he eventually got to be the leading man in "Crazy for You" on TV, and I saw him in "Death Takes a Holiday" just last fall), Ann Morrison, and Lonny Price (who's now more active as a director). Jason Alexander played the tone-deaf producer who first hires the guys, and Liz Callaway was back in the ensemble.

    The 1985 La Jolla production that introduced the main revisions that still stand was directed by James Lapine (also doing the honors for Encores), starring John Rubinstein, Heather MacRae, and Chip Zien, with Marin Mazzie as Beth (Frank's first wife) and Mary Gordon Murray as Gussie, the brazen actress he later marries.

    Then in 1990 Arena Stage (DC) did it, a production that I saw. It had Victor Garber, Becky Ann Baker, and David Garrison, with Mazzie and Murray returning.

    In 1994 York Theatre (the East Side operation that also does Musicals in Mufti) had a production, and I believe these were the last of the revisions. Malcolm Gets, Amy Ryder, and Adam Heller were the leads, with Anne Bobby as Beth and Michelle Pawk as Gussie.

    The 2002 production, part of the Sondheim Celebration that summer at the Kennedy Center, was wonderful in every way, including the cast: Michael Hayden, Miriam Shor, and Raul Esparza, with Adam Heller now as the producer, plus Anastasia Barzee as Beth and Emily Skinner as Gussie.

    And now for Encores; I'll be there!

  2. I wish I had seen them all! But especially the Sondheim Celebration version. Thanks so much for the added information, Jon. I'm afraid I wrote this in a rush because I wanted to put something up about it, and wasn't as complete as I should've been.

    There was no cast recording from the Kennedy Center production, was there? I have the one from the York production, and it sounds very good, I think. It's intriguing to me that the score includes "Not a Day Goes By" and "Good Thing Going," and yet every time I've seen it, "Franklin Shepard, Inc." is the one that brings down the house. Not that there's anything wrong with "Franklin Shepard, Inc." It just strikes me as a little silly and kind of dated sounding. But I guess it shows that a character song with energy and humor in it will shoot straight to the heart of an audience.

  3. I agree that the York production sounds good on its recording. And yes, none of the Kennedy Center productions were recorded.

    I think that two big reasons "Franklin Shepard, Inc." always goes over so well are that it's a real tour de force for a performer (the feel of a patter song, even though it isn't really -- but it has that energy you talk about, and especially the conclusion is a race against time to say all the words before the final orchestra stinger), and that Charley is the most sympathetic role and is often played by the most likable performer. That was certainly the case with David Garrison and Raul Esparza, and is almost certain to be the same with Mr. Miranda.

  4. Casting Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charlie is really a stroke of genius. Yes, David Garrison and Raul Esparza are very, very likable, but in different ways. Miranda has a boyish charm and warmth that is all his own, plus a kind of (fizzy? frenetic?) energy that should make that song, well, sing. Somebody at Encores! did a very smart thing, if you ask me.