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

By Steven Suskin
17 Jul 2012

Colin Donnell and Elizabeth Stanley
Photo by Joan Marcus
Which leaves us with the Frank of Colin Donnell, who played Billy Crocker opposite Sutton Foster in the recently departed Anything Goes. Frank is a thankless role, methinks; like Bobby in Sondheim & Furth's Company, he is the center of the story but not the center of attention. Frank is not an admirable character, certainly; but why do I feel that the songwriter liked Mary and Charley and Joe best? No matter. Donnell is perfectly okay on the recording, while the others stand out.

The Joe referenced above is the Broadway producer who wants a song you can hum. This role, too, is forever linked to its creator. The 22-year-old Jason Alexander — in a production full of young actors playing old, which was perhaps the most damaging conceptual choice in 1981 — was the glittering exception which showed how the thing could, just maybe, have worked. Here we have Adam Grupper, and he is thoroughly charming. There are additional strong contributions from Betsy Wolfe as Beth and Elizabeth Stanley as Gussie. Plus a small solo in one of the "Merrily" transitions from child actor Zachary Unger, who did a fine job as Franklin Jr. in his big scene at City Center. (He'll make his Broadway debut in the coming musical Chaplin.)

Orchestrator Jonathan Tunick has been on hand since the original production, but the orchestration situation has always been problematic. As new songs — and revised versions of old songs — came along, Tunick duly orchestrated them; but subsequent productions, in non-Broadway sized venues, used orchestras with considerably fewer players than the original. So all the musical changes over the years have been orchestrated for smaller orchestras. How do you do Merrily at City Center with 23 pieces when a considerable part of the show is orchestrated for only 13?

By reorchestrating all the "new" stuff for the same 23. Fortunately, Tunick is very much around and — as anyone who listens to this new recording will hear — writing as skillfully as ever. (Tunick doesn't look like he's 74, nor does he write like he's 74.) When starting the assignment, though, he realized that the original charts for the show — which are excellent, as attested to by the original 1981 cast album — had an underlying flaw. In a fascinating liner note, he explains that Merrily was described to him when he started work as "a lighthearted, ingenuous romp, like a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movie." This, in itself, indicates just how unworkable and unfixable the original concept was; by the time the creators realized the true nature of the show, it was too late to make the sort of changes that were necessary.

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