Monday, August 13, 2012

"Merrily" Keeps Rolling in PS Classics Cast Recording

When Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along" played earlier this year as part of New York City Center's Encores! series, PS Classics got to work almost immediately to capture the performance by way of a cast recording. That was great news for Sondheim enthusiasts unable to make it to New York to see it in person.

Even better, this two-disc "Merrily" is the usual top-notch PS Classics production, "complete with 52-page full-color booklet with essay, synopsis, lyrics, production photos and an expansive Jonathan Tunick."

Part of the note is reproduced here at the PS Classics site so you can see some of Tunick's inside scoop as a special treat even before you get the cd.

And make no mistake -- you need to get this cd. "Merrily We Roll Along" is one of those special Sondheim shows that fans adore and other people tend to just not get. It goes backwards. It has an unhappy ending (that comes at the beginning) as we see exactly where Franklin Shepard, the talented guy at the center of the show, went wrong. It features talented people (Frank and his two best pals, Mary and Charley) who can't seem to find a way to truly share their talents or keep their friendship going because of the kind of compromises, mistakes, and loss of ideals that pretty much happens to everyone. Wasted talent. Broken friendship. Middle-age ennui. All unwinding backwards, from that middle-aged low point through trial and tribulation, frustration and betrayal, past fledgling success and early steps in the right direction, till we're back with Frank, Mary and Charley before it all began, as fresh, starry-eyed kids, ready to take on the world.

So, yes, "Merrily We Roll Along" is bittersweet, and it's fair to say that critics and audiences have not always embraced it. The original "Merrily" Broadway production, the one in 1981 with Jason Alexander and Liz Callaway in the cast, ran for 52 previews and only 16 performances, with New York Times critic Frank Rich calling the show a shambles. He began his review, "As we all should probably have learned by now, to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one's heart broken at regular intervals."

Still, the show has been produced in London, Washington DC, LA, and back in New York, Off-Broadway at the York Theatre in 1994. Oh, and in Central Illinois. I've seen one in Bloomington-Normal and at least two in Champaign-Urbana.

But the Encores! production was something special. With Jonathan Tunick rethinking the orchestrations (as he mentioned in that note linked above), with James Lapine once again directing, with conductor Rob Berman leading a 23-piece orchestra, with stars like Colin Donnell, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Frank, Mary and Charley, it was a "Merrily" a lot of people had been waiting for.

The PS Classics cast recording, produced by Tommy Krasker with his usual attention to detail and a clear love for the material, comes off beautifully. It looks good, with enough pictures and a detailed synopsis to give you a real feel for the production, plus pieces of dialogue to enhance the music.

And, oh, the music. "Merrily We Roll Along" has several standout songs, like the beautiful and sad "Not a Day Goes By," which sounds as haunting as ever from Donnell, Keenan-Bolger and especially Betsy Wolfe, playing Beth, Frank's first wife. Miranda adds the warmth and charm I expected to all of his numbers, but especially "Franklin Shepard, Inc." And Keenan-Bolfer surprised me. After her performance in "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" as soft, sweet Olive Ostrowski, I wasn't sure she could go caustic and cranky enough for Mary in "Merrily." But she sounds just fine when that's what's called for ("That Frank"), and she adds a sweet neurotic side to Mary in the early going that is quite endearing.

"Opening Doors" is another highlight, and by the time they got to "Our Time," the bright, shiny end of the show, I was a believer in all three of Donnell, Keenan-Bolger and Miranda.

To be perfectly honest, I was already in love when Berman and his orchestra began the overture. All of "Merrily We Roll Along," all the yearning, dashed hopes and yes, the spark of optimism, that these kids may just make it out okay, is right there.

The "Merrily We Roll Along" cast recording was released July 10, and it is available directly from PS Classics. You gotta have this. You know you do!


  1. The show is done a lot by schools, I believe -- high schools and colleges. There seem to be productions scheduled all over, any time I check in "The Sondheim Review." In my time at UDel, I've seen it done here twice -- the first of them being quite early on, before the authors revised it substantially in the mid 1980s (and they've tweaked it on several occasions since then, too). Despite its tempting quality for young theatrically inclined kids, it seems to work best when done (as here) by performers around 30, who can stretch a bit in both directions.

    As someone specially interested in theater orchestration, the new Tunick orchestrations here are a particular treat. All the revised versions have been for a reduced orchestration, and I expected that they would never get reconciled with the larger orchestra of the first version. But now it's happened, and beautifully. And the brand-new Entr'acte thats starts CD 2 is a special kick; I've played it several times by itself.

  2. The Entr'acte really is great. I was thinking of it in the same way as the Overture when I wrote that, but the Overture made my point better, that I am so smitten at the very beginning, before any of the story or singing has even started.