off broadway

Can Merrily We Roll Along Finally Find Its Ideal Self?

(L-R) Ben Steinfeld (as Frank), Jessie Austrian (as Mary), and Manu Narayan (as Charley). Photo: Joan Marcus

Ever since Merrily We Roll Along premiered and then quickly closed on Broadway in 1981, people have been trying to find a way to resurrect Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s showbiz musical. The latest iteration comes from Fiasco, an in-house theater company at the Roundabout, which is staging a new version of Merrily this spring after its success with another Sondheim, Into the Woods, in 2015. For their version, Fiasco looked back on early drafts of Merrily and worked closely with Sondheim himself to develop a new approach to the material — and a lot of tinkering along the way. “We understand how to have a big, messy process,” Ben Steinfeld, who plays Frank, told Vulture. “We treat every show like it’s a new show anyway, so this seemed like a really great opportunity to bring more of our own creative experimentation to the table.”

Merrily We Roll Along, for those who haven’t seen the recent documentary on the original Broadway production or perhaps even Lady Bird, moves backward in time through the lives of a trio of baby-boomer friends. We watch Frank, Charley, and Mary go from financial success and personal despair back to their youthful, 20-something hopefulness. Fiasco’s version, currently in previews at the Laura Pels Theatre and opening February 19, streamlines the material down to fit a cast of six actors, cuts the intermission, and sets the action within a sort of costume-and-prop warehouse. Vulture spoke with Steinfeld, Jessie Austrian (who plays Mary), and director Noah Brody to hear the key steps that went into their take on Merrily.

Look back to the source material

Since 1981, Merrily has lived through productions and rewrites with James Lapine in San Diego in 1985, in D.C. in 1990, Off Broadway in 1994, in London in 2000 (where it won an Olivier Award for Best Musical), and more recently in an Encores! Production in New York in 2012. According to Austrian, Fiasco’s Merrily is “a pretty even blend” of the ’81 and ’94 versions, though it also incorporates moments from the musical’s own source material: the Kaufman and Hart play that premiered on Broadway in 1934. In conversations with Sondheim, the composer mentioned to the Fiasco team that the musical missed the darkness of a scene in the Kaufman and Hart version where Frank and his first wife Beth live together in desperation with her parents. So they decided to incorporate more from that period in Frank’s life into their version. “That has changed entirely in my relationship to understanding why Frank makes some of the decisions he does earlier in the story, and how they play out later,” Steinfeld said.

Find the key characters

In developing the show, Fiasco tried out some radical “Harold Pinter-esque experiments,” including an attempt at taking out all the transitions and references to time, which didn’t quite work. But a key change that stuck involved deciding the show had six major characters, not just the lead three. In that group of six, they included the central trio of Frank (a songwriter turned movie producer), Charley (a writer and Frank’s collaborator, until Frank sells out), and Mary (a novelist turned critic and alcoholic), as well as Frank’s first wife Beth, his second wife Gussie (with whom he has an affair), and Broadway producer Joe Josephson. With that structure, they also realized they only needed a cast of six. “With them, you can do most of what happens in the play,” Steinfeld said. “When we need other characters, they’re played by people who are available to play them.”

And flesh all of them out

The Fiasco team looked to various versions of the material to help flesh out those six characters, especially the ones who had more typically been seen as secondary. “When you look at the different drafts of the musical — and adding in the play to that — you see how they’re trying very different versions of the characters of Beth and Gussie,” Brody said. “One of the things I hope we’ve done through spending a little bit more time with Frank and Gussie in their early relationship is created a consistent character for Beth and for Gussie that allows them to live in the same world as Frank and Charley and Mary as people who are doing their best, making decisions with the information they have, and making mistakes along the way.”

Give it a setting that works

As they figured out how to narrow down the cast of characters, the Fiasco team arrived at the idea of setting the show “in a sort of props-costumes storage unit,” according to Austrian, a warehouse “where all this stuff from previous decades and from the world of theater and film and TV live.” The original 1981 production infamously cast a group of teenagers as the lead characters, and while Fiasco didn’t go that route, they thought this sort of setting preserved some of that iteration’s spirit. “Part of what we’ve taken from the 1981 draft that we feel got changed over time was that kids-putting-on-a-show quality,” Austrian said of the warehouse setting. “And it’s a show about people who work in show business.”

Don’t worry too much about the period

Merrily contains many hyperspecific cultural references that might have made sense to boomer audiences in the early ’80s, but will probably sail like Sputnik over the heads of younger audience members today. In Sondheim’s earlier drafts, the team discovered there was “much, much, much, much, much more about referencing specific historical stuff from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s,” according to Steinfeld. But they also realized that as much real history is referenced in the play, it’s best used as signposts for the emotional drama. “In those conversations with Steve, it became clear that the years themselves, like, this period of time, isn’t ‘the thing’ that’s important,” Austrian added. “It’s about looking back over 25 years.” “This scene happens in ’63? Great,” Brody explained. “It’s not that important that it’s ’63, it’s important in that it’s a moment of perhaps a break in your career, or a break in your relationship. That’s what’s important about that moment.”

Figure out why everyone wants to go back in time

Merrily’s basic structure, its movement backward in time from scene to scene, isn’t quite justified emotionally for the characters. Why would these three people, collectively, feel a need to go back to the past? To make that more clear, the Fiasco team found lines for Frank, Mary, and Charley and gave them “a little more priority by putting them earlier in the show as a sort of prologue,” according to Austrian. They wanted the sense that the characters are “beginning in 1981 from a place of, ‘I wish I could go back,’ of, ‘I want to get in touch with my 18-year-old self,’ or ‘I miss how it was,’ or ‘I swear if I could go back to the beginning.’” To their mind, this underlines what the musical is trying to do as theater, providing a space where it is possible for people to move back in time. “Life doesn’t work that way, but we can reenact it in order to move forward, in order to look to the future,” Austrian said. “That 18-year-old is still in there. You can step back to those ideas and put them in conversation with your new, different ideas. It’s not too late.”

Can Merrily We Roll Along Finally Find Its Ideal Self?