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Still trying to get Sondheim's 'Merrily We Roll Along' right

February 10, 2012 |  1:21 pm
A semi-staged  version of "Merrily We Roll Along," the 1981 Stephen Sondheim musical that famously flopped after only two weeks on Broadway, was presented at New York's City Center"How did we get to be here?"

That question is asked by the chorus throughout "Merrily We Roll Along," the 1981 Stephen Sondheim musical that famously flopped after only two weeks on Broadway.  On Wednesday night, a semi-staged "Merrily" was presented at New York's City Center, placing the problematic show closer to Broadway both in spirit and location -- only four blocks from its original theater -- than it's been in 30-plus years.

How did "Merrily" get here after all its drama -- it was the "Spider-Man" of its season, with postponements, creative replacements and plenty of ill will -- and after all these years?

Well, it started in San Diego in 1985, when James Lapine -- who had just collaborated with Sondheim on "Sunday in the Park With George" -- was given a chance to retool "Merrily" at the La Jolla Playhouse. In his book "Finishing the Hat," Sondheim writes that Lapine's La Jolla production (which ran for only 24 performances) was "the critical moment of rehabilitation of 'Merrily We Roll Along.'" It inspired theater companies across the country (and overseas) to tinker with the flaws in the musical. Sondheim and book writer George Furth contributed to and supported many of these productions, often writing new scenes and songs.

This culminated in 2000 with a London production, which won an Olivier Award for best production, and in 2002, an excellent revival directed by Christopher Ashley was produced at the Kennedy Center. Since then, a consensus has formed that "Merrily" has been "fixed," with commercial producers even seriously considering a Broadway revival.

This City Center production, which runs through Feb. 19, is presented by Encores!, the specialists in "concert stagings" of neglected Broadway shows. Its production of "Chicago" moved to Broadway and became a long-running hit that is still playing on Broadway. The company is the inspiration for Reprise! the L.A.-based troupe run by Jason Alexander (who, incidentally, was in the original cast of "Merrily").

Lapine is the director again, and perhaps this is the version that will bring "Merrily" back to Broadway. The cast, which includes Colin Donnell and Lin-Manuel Miranda (writer and star of "In The Heights") as two of the three friends who come to New York to make it, is strong.  And Lapine's fluency with Sondheim's work (along with some nifty video projections) makes the famously knotty book flow more smoothly than previous productions.

Though the New York Times' Ben Brantley was unconvinced, Variety's critic wrote: "This seems the best of all possible "Merrilys." Sondheim fans will heartily approve." The New York Post review called this "Merrily" "it's best incarnation yet."

But Lapine's production is not the only version of "Merrily" with Broadway potential. John Doyle, the director of the stripped-down "Sweeney Todd" that wowed Broadway (and played at the Ahmanson in 2008) is staging a "Merrily" in Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park next month. 

Back in 1985, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner wrote of the La Jolla version: "Sondheim, Furth and Lapine have located the show everyone hoped was inside the wreckage of the Broadway version … from the ashes of one of the unhappiest of Broadway failures has come a musical that can stand among the finest works the genre has ever offered."

The upcoming weeks will determine if that prediction holds true, but so far in 2012 "Merrily" seems to be not just rolling along, but rolling ahead.

-- James C. Taylor in New York

Above: Celia Keenan-Bolger, Colin Donnell and Lin-Manuel Miranda during a performance of "Merrily We Roll Along," at New York's City Center. Credit: Joan Marcus / Helene Davis Public Relations /  Associated Press

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