"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.