The score of Merrily We Roll Along is considered one of Stephen Sondheim's best – and yet when the show debuted on Broadway in 1981, it was a notorious flop, lasting for only 16 performances. There were probably several reasons why the show didn't work, but most importantly in the opinion of most critics and scholars was the decision of Sondheim and director Hal Prince to cast very young performers, performers too young to have the experience and skills to play characters who start in their 40s and finish in their early 20s. For Merrily (and the original play of the same name by earlier Broadway legends Moss Hart and George Kaufman, on which it is based) begins at the end of the story of three showbiz friends, disillusioned in their financial success, and goes back in time 20 years by stages to the moment when they started off in New York, idealistically full of hopes of dreams.
Revivals, from concerts to full productions, have usually reversed the original casting scheme, casting instead older performers of the right age for the beginning of the show who are able to navigate the journey back to their youthful selves. Toronto Musical Concerts did the same in their concert staging at the Al Green Theatre on October 17, and it works. Even with the performers using scores on music stands with only limited staging and bits of choreography, the show comes alive. The brilliant witty book by George Furth (who had earlier collaborated with Sondheim on the hit Company), interwoven with Sondheim's music and lyrics, combines cynical comedy with trenchant social observation as well as the ins and outs of both romantic love and the love between great friends.
Michael De Rose as Franklin Shepard stood out with his strong rich voice and presence. Ryan Kelly was appealing as his writing partner Charley Kringas, with his comic timing and great ability to 'youthen' over the course of the play. Lizzie Kurtz as Mary Flynn, the third of the central trio, captures the warm but acerbic Dorothy-Parker-meets-Carrie-Fisher quality of the girl in the trio and her journey from alcoholic disillusionment spiced with unrequited love for Frank back to excited, unblemished hope and ambition.
The concert, an Equity collective, was a bit rough on the opening night with the sound not balanced until partway through, and performers not always certain how best to position themselves to be amplified by the microphones positioned in front and overhead. The petite Lana Carillo as Gussie, Franklin's Broadway star wife, was often particularly hard to hear. On the other hand, the energy and commitment of the company was unquestioned and by the second half all was coming together, with songs such as “Old Friends,” “Franklin Shepard, Inc,” and “Opening Doors” sounding particularly strong.
The wonderful 2016 documentary about the original production of Merrily We Roll Along—called Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened—left me hoping to see a new production of the full show in order to explore its full potential. This TMC concert confirm the quality of the book and score and that the backward story arc is not only intriguing but an effective storytelling technique. In doing so, it whets the appetite even more for a full production of this brilliant but rarely seen musical.
Toronto Musical Concerts presented Merrily We Roll Along in concert on October 17 and 18, at the Al Green Theatre, Toronto.
Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.