Merrily We Roll Along is a victim of its own failure. This may seem tautological, but few musicals have been so extensively revised, rewritten, and reconceptualized on the basis of the perceived failure of their original Broadway outing. Merrily’s reputation as the “flawed” 1981 masterpiece that fractured Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince’s era-defining collaboration is as uncontroversial as it is undeserved. Yet the perception persists, largely because of Sondheim’s own endless tinkering with the property. 38 years later, Merrily doesn’t roll along so much as lumber like Frankenstein’s monster, each new production a patchwork solution in search of a problem.
At an intermission-less 100 minutes, Fiasco Theater’s version is probably the sveltest cutting of the play yet. The original’s conceit, borrowed from the 1934 Kaufman and Hart source play, remains more or less the same: we follow friends Frank (Ben Steinfeld), Mary (Jessie Austrian), and Charley (Manu Narayan) in reverse chronology from cynical, embittered adulthood to the boundless, our-time promise of youth.
By making Frank’s affair with Broadway star Gussie (Emily Young) the story’s locus, though, Fiasco’s version has almost completely erased Mary, already the most thinly-drawn of the lead trio, from the story. Triangles are supposedly the most stable shape, and without one side of its foundational triangle, the play crumbles; misery becomes the defining trait of friendship, instead of one of its many colors.
The musical has certainly never been an easy pill to swallow anyway, expecting its audience to root for characters who begin the play unpleasant and get only slightly less unpleasant by degrees. The good news is that the play’s structure turns all the second-act problems that plague most musicals into first-act problems, and all the show’s best numbers act as a kind of reward for suffering through the nastiness.
Unfortunately, though, Frank, Mary, and Charley’s story has no ending – were it to play forward, it would just peter out. Life is like that, but musical theater usually isn’t, which has partly contributed to Merrily’s flawed reputation. Where the original Broadway version had a company of mostly young actors wondering how Frank became so disillusioned, Fiasco’s version attempts to mitigate the lack of an ending by framing the story as a conscious attempt by the main characters to reclaim their innocence. Though the play’s compromises and betrayals feel more acute from the original production’s youthful point of view, there is great pathos in seeing the current actors, who are decidedly not 19 years old, playing young. It’s a reminder, in case any of us needed one, that the past is always unreachable and, worse, unknowable.
Scenic designer Derek McLane’s aversion to negative space pays great dividends here; the prop storage shelves that stretch beyond the top of the Laura Pels Theatre’s proscenium arch hold the detritus of several lives, from lampshades to typewriters, with Christopher Akerlind’s lights ever-so-delicately drawing focus to individual sections of the set as the play demands. “Opening Doors” has always been the play’s best number, and the giant doors upstage center serve as an expressionistic reminder of just how daunting and terrifying professional “doors” can be to those outside of them.
The busy set provides welcome distraction from Fiasco co-founder Noah Brody’s often disengaged direction. The production sparkles when leaning full-tilt into the trademark less-is-more style that made Fiasco’s name with their production of Into the Woods, especially when portraying New York’s haute bourgeoisie as blasé mannequins and paintings in “The Blob,” but too often favors a park-and-bark delivery that immobilizes action that should be hurtling into the past.
It’s a shame the original production of Merrily We Roll Along had to go down in infamy. You don’t see anyone futzing with Gypsy or Fiddler on the Roof; new productions may search for a fresh angle on the material, but there’s never any intimation that the plays themselves need to be “fixed” or “solved.” It’s almost too fitting that a play about the inevitability of compromise is itself seen as compromised, but this latest listless and uninvolving production will hopefully convince future interpreters that the way to make art out of this tart, unwieldy play is not to smooth its edges but to embrace and celebrate them, in all their messy and glorious weirdness.