ON THE RECORD: The Encores! Cast Album of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along

By Steven Suskin
17 Jul 2012

Lonny Price in the original production
Photo by Martha Swope
With Sunday successfully launched, Lapine encouraged Sondheim and Furth to return to Merrily, working with them (as director) to assemble a new version that opened at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985. Gone was the original concept, the original framing device, and some of the original songs; these Sondheim replaced with new ones, derived from musical themes within the old. The 1985 Merrily was something of a success; it is mighty difficult for a high-profile Broadway flop to find subsequent productions, though, while memories remain fresh. Regional and non-profit theatres took up the La Jolla version, and the show began to find appreciative audiences. Key productions included a 1992 mounting at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester and one in 1994 at the York Theatre in New York; both of these resulted in cast albums. A 2000 mounting at London's Donmar Warehouse attracted further attention (and an Olivier Award), as did a full-scale Merrily as part of the Kennedy Center's grand Sondheim Festival in the summer of 2002.

This last production was pretty good, all told. But it was still Merrily We Roll Along, carrying with it the inborn problems that had always proven so troublesome. Perfectly satisfactory and more than reasonably entertaining, and what more can you expect?

Merrily came to Encores! as the first offering of this past season, with James Lapine once again directing. This was the first major production since the death of Furth in 2008, as a result of which Lapine might have felt more free to adapt the script. (Concert versions by definition require adaptation of the libretto; in this case, Lapine seems to have not only whittled things down but done some rewriting.) For whatever reasons, this Merrily We Roll Along — for the first time in my experience, at least — worked. No excuses required, no recap necessary of the long, not-so-merry road the show had rolled along for 25 years. Here was a production which entertained, which told a story that left you something to think about, and which practically smote you over the head with the richness of Sondheim's score. Yes, the same score we'd been hearing since 1985, but even so.

Celia Keenan-Bolger, Colin Donnell and Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Encores! production
photo by Martha Swope

The new cast recording packs an even stronger wallop. I've been hearing the "new" songs since 1985, now. (Why do we consider them new? They were written within four years of the opening, which makes them just a few blinks younger than the rest.) For the first time, for me anyway, songs like "That Frank" and "Growing Up" sound like they belong. And they enhance the show.

The performances are very good. Standing out is Celia-Keenan Bolger, who stepped into the role of Mary Flynn between the Off-Broadway and Broadway stints of Peter and the Starcatcher. (The 2012 Tony nominee Keenan-Bolger is wonderful as Molly — the only girl — in the play presently at the Atkinson, and the show is wonderful, too; take this as a plug in passing.) Here, as Mary, Keenan-Bolger is no child; she is as caustic and brittle as Dorothy Parker, after whom Kaufman & Hart patterned the role in the original, 1934 play version of Merrily. From her very first lines in "That Frank," this Mary commands attention while always shining the spotlight back on her old friend (and his shortcomings). Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author/star of In the Heights, might seem like a non-ideal choice for Frank's pal-and-lyricist Charley, a role which was so definitively created by Lonny Price. So much for type casting; Miranda is swell. He manages that breakdown-in-song called "Franklin Shepard, Inc." with aplomb, and is especially touching in "Good Thing Going" and "Opening Doors."

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