Roll It Back: The Latest Merrily Is Crisp and Polished, but Flawed

<em>Steve Jobs</em> returns, beats <em>The Times</em> to the punch

“Yesterday is done.”

Those are, appropriately enough, the first words you hear in the current version of Merrily We Roll Along, the long-troubled and oft-reworked musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by George Furth.

Merrily, based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart about the slow demise of a close and fruitful friendship among three successful creative types—Franklin Shepard, a charming and ambitious composer-turned-producer; Charley Kringas, an idealistic playwright and Shepard’s collaborator; and Mary Flynn, a novelist—is most notable for being the 1981 bomb that demolished the close and fruitful collaboration between Mr. Sondheim and Harold Prince, the producer and director. It’s also notable for being told, like the play it’s based on, in reverse-chronological order, so that the three friends begin the show old and jaded and end it young and hopeful. Merrily is about looking fondly, but not too fondly, back at the past, hence the opening lyric. But the act of presenting Merrily, whenever it is newly staged, is also an argument that the production we’re seeing is an improvement on whatever less successful versions came before. Yesterday, each successive Merrily insists of its predecessors, is done.

And yet it never seems to quite escape the past.

The new production that opened at City Center Encores last week (and runs though this weekend in an atypically long Encores engagement) is directed by James Lapine, who directed and wrote the book for several of Mr. Sondheim’s classics, including Sunday in the Park With George, which won the pair a Pulitzer Prize. In 1985, he urged Messrs. Sondheim and Furth to rework Merrily for a La Jolla Playhouse production that was more successful than the original.

There’ve been innumerable other revisions since, for a run in Washington, D.C., in 1990, for Off-Broadway’s York Theatre Company in 1994 and for various iterations in Britain. All of that is combined into what’s onstage now, along with a further dash of new work from Mr. Lapine.

And indeed this is a very coherent production, crisp and polished. As has not been the case in all previous Merrilys, the story progresses—that is, regresses—smoothly, with clear and comprehensible transitions further back in time. The cast—led by Colin Donnell, charming but oddly vacant as Frank; Celia Keenan-Bolger, in a series of terrible wigs, as Mary; and an appealing low-key Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charley­—is strong. Together with the mighty Encores orchestra, directed as usual by Rob Berman, they make Mr. Sondheim’s songs—some of them truly lovely, haunting reflections on the loss of friendship—sound fantastic. There’s a bustling chorus and smooth choreography (by Dan Knechtges) that at one point even includes an involved, acrobatic number. (The once-minimal staging of Encores’ shows keeps getting more and more maximal.)

And there are some wonderful moments. Mr. Miranda, for example, performs a version of “Franklin Shepard Inc.”—Mr. Sondheim’s brilliant, one-song dissection of how a successful artist sells out—that keeps the song’s pathos, so often subdued below its comedy, bubbling right at the surface. Betsy Wolfe, as Shepard’s jilted first wife, delivers an amazing, wrenching take on her ballad of jilted love, “Not a Day Goes By.” The comic patter song “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” is a silly gem, presented with glee. There are thoughtful passages on the dilemmas of a successful artist (presaging Mr. Sondheim’s 1983 Sunday in the Park), and there are beautiful meditations on regrets and unrequited love and roads not taken (echoing his 1971 Follies).

But there are also problems that are not surmounted here, and are perhaps insurmountable.

At the most basic level, friendships fall apart; it’s what happens in life. (“Most friends fade / Or they don’t make the grade / New ones are quickly made,” the song “Old Friends” acknowledges.) So it’s a bit difficult to view as tragic the loss of a friendship between a Hollywood macher, a Pulitzer-winning playwright and a best-selling author. That’s especially true because it is never clear why these people were such great friends in the first place, beyond repeated assertions of great friendship and an occasionally invoked three-way pinky handshake.

We wait for the final scene to discover what so deeply bonded this trio together—and discover that they all merely happened to go up on their apartment roof at the same moment one night in 1957 to watch Sputnik cross the sky. (Which is a nice, if obvious, metaphor for the start of their lives, the moment when everything is changing—until Mr. Furth’s book pounds its shoe on the table: “Nothing’s ever going to be the way it was, not ever again,” he has Frank say, even more obviously. “Do you guys realize that now we are going to be able to do anything? What a time to be starting out.” Excessive exposition, it seems, is what bonded these friends together.)

Roll It Back: The Latest Merrily Is Crisp and Polished, but Flawed