When Merrily We Roll Along opened in 1981, Frank Rich wrote, “to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one’s heart broken at regular intervals.” However, this time around, it was not simpy the songs that led to the heartbreak. “Mr. Sondheim has given this evening a half-dozen songs that are crushing and beautiful—that soar and linger and hurt,” he writes, “But the show that contains them is a shambles.” Since that premiere, Merrily has been endlessly rewritten and reworked, and now Fiasco Theater is presenting their own streamlined, one-act version. Unfortunately, all the futzing in the world has yet to save this ambitious and admirable but ultimately flat and underwhelming musical.
Merrily begins in 1980, as the eminent composer Franklin Shepard (Ben Steinfeld) delivers the commencement address at his old high school. The experience of reflecting on the passage of twenty-five years opens the floodgates of memory, sending the show backward, first to the end of his best friendships, then to the deterioration of those friendships, and finally to their origins. Much like Betrayal, which debuted three years earlier, the knowledge of a broken ending permeates even the happiest moments, and Merrily We Roll Along is suffused with a sense of melancholy. I found myself repeatedly thinking of that beautifully understated line in Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story: “Isn’t life disappointing?”
The rupture between Frank, his lyricist Charley Kringas (Manu Narayan), and their pal, novelist-turned-drunken theater critic Mary (Jessie Austrian), stems largely from diverging priorities. While Charley keeps pushing to mount a production of their challenging, Marxist-themed Take a Left, Frank is quickly seduced by money and power and opts instead to appease their producer (Paul L. Coffey) with splash and spectacle. In a sense, Charley is looking to do a Sondheim musical—something like Merrily We Roll Along—while Frank wants to hew closer to the blockbusters of an Andrew Lloyd Webber. Mary is unable to mediate the fallout, and each retreat to their alienated adulthood.
The problem, though, is that Fiasco, in abbreviating the work, never gives us time to know these characters. While the music is lovely out of context, the drama is forced, frequently relying on showbiz clichés about the wages of success: while Charley settles down in Connecticut, Frank has an affair and leaves the actress he married (Brittany Bradford) for another who is more famous (Emily Young)—and his producer’s wife, to boot. As always, the Fiasco cast has an endearing commitment to their makeshift aesthetic, and a beautiful stage overfilled with mannequins, lamps, costumes, and other stage paraphernalia is used with remarkable versatility. Ultimately, however, we never bond with Frank, Charley, and Mary quite like they bond with one another; in fact, we never really learn what they like about each other in the first place. Because of its scope, and because of the cathartic potential of the material, I still hold out hope that Merrily will some day find its final, satisfying version. But this is not it.