As you Sondheimians out there have no doubt heard/retweeted, the umpteenth reconceiving of Merrily We Roll Along is now in its first zygotic stirrings at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, eyeing a debut a year from now. What makes this different from other potentially Broadway-bound Merrily rumblings we’ve heard in the last few years? (The rumored Roundabout production, most notably?) Well, this one’s captained by none other than John Doyle, who successfully revived Sweeney Todd and Company with his signature technique of having actors play their own instruments onstage. (Doyle in 2008 debuted a similar production of Merrily on his home turf, the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, United Kingdom, to mixed-to-positive reviews.)
Merrily We Roll Along is widely known as the show that nearly broke Stephen Sondheim. Its failure ended a long streak of artistically rich (if not always financially successful) collaborations with director Harold Prince, and got Sondheim thinking about giving up musicals for other pursuits, including, he said, writing video games. (Then, of course, James Lapine turned up, and the world never got to play Passion for Xbox, RATED D FOR DISSONANT.) Merrily’s troubles were well documented before it opened; it was the Spider-Man of its day, with a then-shocking 52 previews. Sure, it was a far cry from Jackie Mason’s 97-preview record for A Teaspoon Every Four Hours (which Spidey recently broke) and far from the 128-preview windup of the 1974 “sexual musical” Let My People Come (which never actually opened, and must be heard to be believed. Need I tell you it’s not safe for work? Nor for home, unless you’re alone or in a time machine?) Like Spidey, Merrily had its “tryouts” right here in New York, and suffered the consequences. Not that developing a show elsewhere is any vaccine against potentially damaging reviews from New York critics.
The fresh Cincinnati air obviously did Doyle’s Company a lot of good a few years ago. Here’s hoping Merrily fares just as well and makes its long-awaited return to Broadway. And if it fails again? I look forward to the release of Gears of Sondheim: Contrapuntal Force for Kinect.