Merrily We Roll Along … Again
February 27, 2019: Seeing Roundabout’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along reminded me of two things. First, Sondheim, even at his worst is better than almost all of his imitators. And second, producers and directors would do well to stop reviving plays and musicals that weren’t so great the first (and sometimes second and third) time round.
My first observation is not hard to understand. Sondheim may not always be at his best, but he is a master of his art. Most imitators are second-rate, or they wouldn’t be imitators. The second observation might give us pause.
Merrily We Roll Along was first produced on Broadway in 1981. It opened Nov. 16 and closed Nov. 28. For the mathematically challenged, that’s less than two weeks.
Nevertheless, in 1985 the musical was restaged at La Jolla, where composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist George Furth took another look at their work and reshaped it. And in 1994 it was back in New York, this time off-Broadway. When your name is Sondheim you get second chances.
But that’s not all. In 2000 and 20013 the musical was produced on the West End. And in 2012, Encores! Kicked off its 19th season with Merrily We Roll Along (Lin-Manuel Miranda played Charley Kringas).
But without doubt, Merrily We Roll Along is still on a bumpy road. So why do theater companies undertake these revivals?
Perhaps companies tackle certain musicals in the genuine belief they can somehow make an iffy piece better. Or maybe they’re working under the cynical assumption that the big name of a composer/lyricist, actor or director will bring in audiences willing to pay the hefty price of a ticket.
Whichever it is, too many people in theater are willing to take a risk with the inferior work of a well-known writer rather than take a risk with the possibly better work of an unknown.
This is a pity. Not only does it mean we are forever recycling the same flawed work; it also means we don’t get a chance to let new writers see their work onstage. Sondheim does not need to see Merrily We Roll Along to become a better composer/lyricist. He is a mature writer with a very definite well-developed style. Nor do we especially need to see this (somewhat tiresome) musical one more time.
But emerging writers do need to see their new work in the theater… just as much as audiences need to see what’s new in theater.