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

By Steven Suskin
17 Jul 2012

James Lapine and Jonathan Tunick
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
In terms of orchestration, Tunick explains, this led him to select the wrong instruments for the pit. A "zany, artless frolic" for 1981 audiences, taking place over 20 years (ending in 1977)? The orchestrator, composer and musical director settled on an instrumentation capable of having a rock-like, contemporary sound. (In the same way that Company needed to sound contemporary.) This included an electric guitar and a Fender bass, which turned out to be all wrong for the show that Merrily became.

Given the opportunity by City Center, Tunick has totally reorchestrated the show that he by this point knows so well. While the original Broadway cast album sounds great — it did in 1981, and does today — this new recording sounds better. And not just in the orchestration, but in the playing. The whole thing, under the direction of Rob Berman, practically leaps off the disc. Listen to the overture, and listen to those trumpet players; the clarity, the distinct colors blending into a three-part choir. And listen to that featured tuba. The music sounds good, and the musicians sound good.

(Those of us you who know the original recording note-for-note might be startled by the final fanfare at the end of the overture. That clam — the high note that the trumpet player muffs — is gone. Imagine, we actually hear it now without the error and it sounds like something is missing!)

The glory of Merrily We Roll Along, though, is in Sondheim's score. While I've always found the existing cast albums endlessly interesting, this new one adds another element. The songs are not just good/enjoyable/intriguing/you-name-it; they are impressive. One after another. The big group numbers, like "That Frank," "Now You Know," "It's a Hit," "Opening Doors," "Our Time." And the smaller numbers, "Like It Was," "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," "Old Friends, "Growing Up," "Good Thing Going."

We are so used to considering Merrily We Roll Along fascinating-but-unworkable — and so used to being overwhelmed by the glories of Follies, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd — that we overlook the brilliance of the writing here. Listen to "Not a Day Goes By," which in this version is introduced by Beth, Frank's first wife. This is not a song of enduring love; it is a devastating cry of pain. The song is heard again — later in the show, but earlier in the story — at Frank and Beth's wedding. The celebratory love duet is punctured by a third voice, Mary's unrequited anguish of longing. (Is this stronger on the new recording because of Keenan-Bolger?) In any event, "Not a Day Goes By" is a remarkable piece of dramatic writing by the composer/lyricist.

We can thank PS Classics for recording this production, and for spreading it over two discs. This allows 89 minutes-worth, instead of the 67 on the Broadway album. All the music plus enough dialogue to give us a better sense of the motivations for the songs.

But we could go on and on. Let's just say Merrily We Roll Along now takes its rightful place on the Sondheim shelf.

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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)