’Tis the season for reimagined Sondheim. As Marianne Elliott’s much-hyped gender-swapped Company gets underway in London, Fiasco Theater is kicking off a stripped-down, semi-adapted Merrily We Roll Along at the Roundabout. It’s happy-making that the generally acknowledged living sovereign of musical theater has been open to smart tinkering with his work. Fiasco — which emerged from the Brown/Trinity MFA Acting program and is known for scrappy, energetic, steamer-trunks-and-scavenged-props takes on classics — have turned to lean double-casting to streamline the 1981 musical, which originally flopped mightily but, over the years, has received lots of reworking from its creators (Sondheim on music and lyrics and George Furth on book) and has become a cult classic among highbrow musical-theater lovers. The company has also done a bit of fleshing out of the script’s arc, most notably adding a scene from the musical’s source, the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Fiasco’s earnest love for the material is evident, the actors’ performances full of pep, and Derek McLane’s set design — a beautiful clutter of old props, scenic elements, neon signs, and stuffed costume racks, all enclosed inside a gilded, jury-rigged proscenium arch — suffused with the same juicy aesthetic pleasure as a dusty curiosity shop.
And the cumulative effect is … pretty good. Despite an abundance of appealing parts, this Merrily doesn’t quite come together into a real gut-punch of a whole. There’s much that’s nice, some that’s very funny, and a bit that’s beautiful, yet the show’s emotional power feels blunted and its aesthetic suspended somewhere between minimalist and maximalist. There’s no shortage of spirit on offer, but visceral oomph is elusive.
It’s not necessarily the production’s fault. Merrily features a parade of delightful Sondheim tunes — among them a few that are totally sublime — but Furth’s book, despite the years of revisions, feels a bit thin, in parts clunky and dated. It’s primarily connective tissue to get us from one song to the next, rather than a deeply realized, psychologically compelling play in its own right. (I wondered a few times what a more operatic, sung-through Merrily would feel like.) It’s also ironically trapped by its own claim to fame, the governing concept of the whole shebang: The trick of Merrily is that it moves backward. We follow the personal and professional relationship arc of three artistic friends — composer Franklin Shepard (Ben Steinfeld), lyricist Charley Kringas (Manu Narayan), and writer Mary Flynn (Jessie Austrian) — but we start at the bitter end and work our way back through the years, toward the wide-eyed, big-dreaming beginning. (Later, Jason Robert Brown picked up on the poignancy potential of reverse engineered narrative in The Last Five Years.) It’s a neat trick, and the weird thing is that it’s at once the musical’s whole reason for being and, ultimately, a hindrance on our ability to feel really heartbroken. As the clock ticks steadily backward (“1980! 1979! 1976!” the cast announces heartily at the top of each scene), we get the gist pretty quick. We know we’re headed from lonely, embittered middle age — with its sad solaces of money, alcohol, and therapy — back to a youth of fresh faces, big ambitions, and heady optimism. And it’s not that the idea itself isn’t wrenching; we’re just a little too far ahead of it for our own good.
To get back the piquancy and pathos that the script’s telegraphing starts to drain away, Merrily relies on its music — and, crucially, on the actors bringing that music to life. Here, the performances and the singing are solid but not breathtaking. The real standouts are Narayan’s rumpled, frustrated Charley — who, to be fair, has an immediate character advantage over the slick, enterprising Frank, who’s increasingly seduced by commercial success — and Brittany Bradford’s Beth, Frank’s wife who divorces him after discovering his affair with the Broadway star Gussie Carnegie (Emily Young). Bradford delivers a devastating “Not a Day Goes By,” Beth’s song of hurt, rage, and betrayal as she’s leaving Frank. It belongs on a playlist of thunderous “Boy, Bye” songs along with Hamilton’s “Burn” — and it becomes doubly heartbreaking when, several scenes later and several years earlier, we hear it again, lyrically unaltered, as the love song it was originally meant to be, before selfishness, thoughtlessness, and other cruelties of time got hold of it. Sondheim also pulls this retconning trick with “Growing Up,” which gives us some sympathy for the conflicted Frank in 1968, when it seems to be a song about making hard but necessary choices. When we hear it in 1962 and realize that it’s actually the hard-edged, manipulative Gussie’s anthem — and a means for her to awaken the grasping side of Frank — it’s suddenly chilling. We shouldn’t have been seduced: Growing up is never a good idea for an artist.
Narayan’s Charley hits home because, like Bradford, he’s sinking deeper into his character, finding the neuroses and weird humor, the dogged high-mindedness and the penchant for self-pity that make Charley into a full human being. (Charley’s aggrieved because Frank keeps putting off their passion project, a risky political musical called Take a Left, in order to do more moneymakers for the producer Joe Josephson, played by Paul L. Coffey.) Though Steinfeld is a wonderful performer — I remember his Feste in Fiasco’s Twelfth Night with real fondness — he seems stiff as Frank, perhaps even miscast. Frank’s a tough nut to crack precisely because of his smoothness, his addiction to surface and success. It’s the harder role, but it’s also the center of the show, and Steinfeld doesn’t quite get us in there. (Though I can see a production where, with a different Frank, Steinfeld makes a great Charley.) Austrian likewise seems sometimes to be playing at Mary rather than fully feeling her out — though she isn’t helped by the fact that Furth’s script unsurprisingly gives the woman in the trio the least developed inner life. She’s unrequitedly in love with Franklin and she spends a lot of time as a stereotypical cynical alcoholic (oh, and that monster of monsters! A critic!): It’s not the richest character to work with.
Austrian does bloom in her songs, especially the downbeat, gorgeous “Like It Was” and the hard-nosed picker-upper “Now You Know.” Her voice, which has a tough edge to it, especially suits the latter, where Sondheim is at his sharp, unsentimental best. “All right, now you know,” sings Mary to the dejected, newly divorced Frank:
Life is crummy.
Well, now you know.
I mean, big surprise:
People love you and tell you lies.
Bricks can tumble from clear blue skies …
It’s called flowers wilt,
It’s called apples rot,
It’s called thieves get rich,
And saints get shot,
It’s called God don’t answer prayers a lot,
Okay, now you know.
I’m not quite sure why Frank deserves this excellent song, having been the one who cheated on his wife, but I guess that’s what old friends are for.
The ten-year-old Fiasco is at an interesting point as a company, because its founders built a brand out of sincere, enthusiastic, actor-driven scrappiness, and their deserved success means that their aesthetic is adjusting to the presence of more dollars. (Tackling Merrily makes plenty of personal sense for them, though I hope it doesn’t foreshadow their future.) Here, on Roundabout’s big stage, they seem a little caught between worlds. They still come out casually before the show, introduce themselves as actors, and start the play without any technical ado. They still look for low-fi solutions to theatrical challenges: Here, “The Blob” — a zinging social satire of a song about the “richest and the most influential people” in NYC — is created by the small ensemble cha-cha-ing with makeshift scarecrows, assembled out of wigged mannequin heads and garish coats and frocks on hangers (the “mayor” is topped off with a framed Picasso for a face). It’s fun and charming, and at the same time, its intentional roughness feels a little overshadowed by the relative grandeur — ramshackle though it’s styled to be — of McLane’s set. Paloma Young’s costumes also feel kitschy and not quite thought through. There’s a fun set of quick changes for Mary as we go back through the years, but I’m not sure it’s worth the distracting awkwardness of her initial couple of outfits (which have several others hiding underneath), and the attention to period detail seems sporadic — sometimes cartoonish and sometimes untroubled over.
But if the show has a bit of a case of having its production-values cake and eating it, too, it still hits a crucial home run in the penultimate scene, in which the young Frank, Charley, and Mary, along with Joe and Beth, share a magnificent song called “Opening Doors.” Director Noah Brody — who, along with Steinfeld, serves as co-artistic director of Fiasco — keeps things simple. The actors swivel in rolling chairs and mime getting down to work at typewriters and pianos as they check in with each other to share their progress out in the big, thrilling, ruthless world. Elated then discouraged then elated again, they’re all hungry, penny-pinching, risk-taking enthusiasm: “I finished the one-act! / I got an audition! / I started the story! / …The publisher called me! / I’m doing a rewrite. / I saw My Fair Lady … I sort of enjoyed it! / I threw out the story. / I’m meeting an agent!” The song is the only one Sondheim has acknowledged as openly autobiographical, and it’s a brilliant, funny, still deeply resonant expression of just what it feels like to be a young striving artist. It’s incredible. It sucks. It’s infuriatingly hard and massively hopeful and completely unfair and usually absurd — and the real trick is not to roll along until only the old days — which were full of their own complexity and struggle — seem like the good ones.
Merrily We Roll Along is at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre.