At a swanky 1976 cocktail party, we witness the last gasp of two former friends. Composer Franklin Shepard, at the pinnacle of success in the entertainment world, is miserable. Author Mary Flynn is outspoken, loud and drunk. They argue about their old pal Charley Kringas, whose name can’t even be mentioned without ire. The show is Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along, but there’s little that’s merry about these three angry people. Frank’s single-minded pursuit of success has ruined their friendship.
“Hey, old friend,” they sing, “Are you okay, old friend?” Through forced smiles they wonder ironically, “Here’s to us — Who’s like us? Damn few.” The connection between Frank, Mary and Charley has imploded spectacularly, mostly due to Frank’s misguided, selfish decisions about his composing career, chasing fame and fortune rather than remaining true to his music and people who care about him. Merrily time travels to past moments until we see them as an optimistic trio in 1957. It’s an unusual emotional arc for a musical, and audiences didn’t care for it when Merrily first appeared onstage.
If you haven't heard of Merrily it might be because it was considered a rare Sondheim flop — it lasted for only 16 performances on Broadway in November 1981. Sondheim’s collaboration with Furth on Company garnered Tony Awards in 1971, followed by more successes with Follies (1974) and Sweeney Todd (1979). Merrily simply didn’t measure up. It was “fixed” with Sondheim’s and Furth’s involvement in a 1985 production in California, but it’s not often staged despite common wisdom that its score includes many great songs — “Old Friends,” “Not a Day Goes By” and “Our Time.”
Why did the Cincinnati Playhouse include Merrily in its current season? The simple answer is that Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern loves Sondheim’s works (Merrily is the eighth Sondheim show he’s produced), and for his final season, he again recruited Tony Award-winning director John Doyle, who restaged Sondheim’s Company here in 2006, a production that moved to Broadway and won a Tony for the best musical revival of 2007.
As with Company, Doyle uses his “actor-musician” approach to Merrily, with all 13 performers playing roles as well as musical instruments. As composer Franklin Shepard, Broadway veteran Malcolm Gets is often at center stage playing a grand piano and looking perplexed by his disintegrating life. Becky Ann Baker’s sardonic Mary provides percussive punctuation, and Daniel Jenkins’ outspoken Charley blasts a brassy trumpet. Jane Pfitsch is spunky Beth, Frank’s first wife, with a plaintive violin in hand (and sometimes a jaunty Irish whistle). Leenya Rideout is his glamorous second wife, the cold-as-ice, manipulative Gussie, who pushes a “roll-around” string bass most of the evening. (The seductive Rideout, an attention-getter from start to finish, even takes the instrument atop the piano for one number). That might sound distracting, but these musical elements add depth and dimension to the characters and the storytelling.
Music, in fact, provides the very environment of Doyle’s production. The set, designed by Scott Pask, is stacked with piles and boxes of scores; the immense floor-to-ceiling back wall is papered with loosely hung sheets of music; the glossy floor is embedded with more of the same. Ben Diskant, a young adult actor, plays Frank’s son but also is a kind of alter ego for the composer himself (wearing a Juilliard T-shirt). He spends much of the 105-minute performance (no intermission) poring over sheet music as if he’s trying to solve the code that will make sense of the off-track lives we’re watching unspool.
A wash of cool blue light (Jane Cox, designer) keeps us in the shady world of memory, and the actors wear singular, character-defining costumes throughout (designed by Ann Hould-Ward) — a blue velvet sport coat on Frank, a frumpy jumper on Mary, a loud plaid suit on high-strung Charley, a perky suit on Beth and a glamorous, ice-blue cocktail dress on Gussie.
Past productions of Merrily (including the original) have used young actors who seldom convince as middle-aged characters. Doyle's key performers — Gets, Baker and Jenkins — appear to be around 40. They are not made to look more youthful as their past is revealed, but their behavior becomes simpler and more optimistic — more friendly. They grow more engaging and likeable as we witness their first moments, making the heartbreak of their unraveled relationship all the more painful. Doyle’s unusual musical exploration of Merrily as a study of how an unthinking chase after success has damaged and ultimately destroyed a strong friendship makes for a moving evening of musical theater.
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG , presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through March 31. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here .