I was excited when George got tickets for Sondheim’s new musical Merrily We Roll Along back in October, 1981. He and I had gone to see Sweeney Todd back in 1979 when we were both living in Harrisburg, and now George was in New York City and I was in Philadelphia.
I was going to take the train up to NYC, but as it happened office mate Joe Duca was driving up to the city that weekend with his son and offered to take me along. He dropped me off in front of George’s apartment building which was somewhere in the west 40’s.
When George had bought the tickets, the performance date was a few days past opening night, but the show had run into trouble, and it was now in an extended preview period, so we’d be seeing a preview rather than a final version of the show. Still, with a show by Sondheim, how could it be bad?
When we got to the Alvin Theatre, I was excited; Sweeney Todd had been the greatest thing I had ever seen on any stage (musical, opera, or anywhere) and I was expecting to be blown away once again.
And I wasn’t disappointed. At least not right away.
The overture was terrific. In the grand Broadway style, it promised a night of great tunes, rollicking rhythms, and brassy orchestrations. The audience and I applauded warmly and loudly. Reports of this show’s troubles must be greatly exaggerated.
Listen for yourself:
The opening scene was of a high school graduation with the chorus singing “The Hills of Tomorrow” followed by the guest speaker Franklin Shephard coming back to his high school after 20 years to let the new graduating class know that they shouldn’t be so optimistic because life might throw them some unexpected curves. This led the graduating class to segue into the title song where they wondered how Franklin Shepherd—composer, producer, entrepreneur—had become such a Debbie Downer. Presumably the idea was that the show we were about to see was the product of the kids’ imaginations as they fantasized how Frank got to be such a sellout.
So far, not too bad, but then the title song did a jump cut into “Rich and Happy” and we were in the LA home of Frank where he was giving a lavish party for his coke snorting friends after the premiere of his latest movie which everyone hated but nobody was willing to tell him so to his face. Everyone was dressed in T-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with either their names or their functions. Like “Best Friend”, “Ex-Wife” or “Next Wife”.
The song ended and then these kids, because the show had been cast entirely with actors in their lates teens and early twenties, played out the scene of jaded 30- or 40-somethings and I was like, what, have I paid Broadway prices to see a high school play, and a bad high school play at that?
And the show never recovered.
Oh, there were moments. Lonnie Price as Charley had a great number where he had a nervous breakdown on TV in “Franklin Shephard, Inc.” And a bit later the three principals sang “Old Friends” and the show briefly seemed to come alive. And since the premise of the show was that time moved backwards, so each scene took place earlier than the preceding scene, the characters gradually got younger, so in the second act they became age appropriate and the last few songs actually landed, and there was that optimistic final number “Our Time”—
Except it wasn’t the final number. After that brief burst of optimism, we were taken to Frank’s graduation ceremony for which he had originally written “The Hills of Tomorrow”. So the show didn’t even end on the optimistic note.
One highlight that I do remember from that evening is the fellow who played the producer. Although he had a relatively small role, I thought he had done a great job, and I made a point of looking up his name. Jason Alexander. Hmm. I made a mental not to keep my eye out for him.
Sondheim and book writer George Furth made several attempts to rework and rewrite the show, and later they brought in James Lapine. Two major changes they made were to drop the framing scenes of the graduation ceremonies and to cast with experienced actors rather than youngsters.
In the late 90s I saw a production at Philadelphia’s Arden Theater that I thought worked very well, and a few years ago there was a limited engagement of a movie version of Maria Friedman’s production that I attended. While I had a few nitpicks about her choices, overall, I thought it was great. Her production has just opened off Broadway to a sold out limited run, but it will probably be transferred to the Great White Way afterwards. It might even coax me into to trip to NYC to see it.