This show was one of the most famous cult flops of all time, possibly second only to Candide and perhaps Mack and Mabel, and yet it has achieved the rare Candide-like feat of coming back as a more-or-less successful part of the standard musical repertoire…a feat that only perhaps one flop in a generation manages to achieve.
A lot of people claim that its failure was an inherent consequence of its central gimmick…telling its story of artistic talent betrayed and friendship lost backwards, so that we start out with old, bitter, cynical sellouts and then trace their story to see how they got that way. But while that idea does sacrifice the traditional idea of suspense, it does have genuine possibilities, and in the current version of the show they are, on the whole, made to work.
The problems that actually sunk the show in its debut were primarily the result of Harold Prince’s uninspired production. Now, Prince is a genius, and he had been critical to the development of Sondheim’s last five masterpieces, but he simply didn’t know how to stage this piece, and his solution…a set of school bleachers and slogan t-shirts ‘labeling’ the characters by their current relationship to the hero…looked absolutely awful. And his conceit of using teenagers to play the parts, which sounded good on paper, was a disaster in actual performance. There were some very talented kids in that cast…the leads were played by Jim Walton, Lonny Price and Ann Morrison, and Jason Alexander, Daisy Prince and Liz Callaway also launched their careers here…but even they couldn’t convincingly portray jaded forty-year-old sophisticates while in their teens and early twenties.
The book was also a problem, although not in the way you might think. By the time the show officially opened, the book problems, while not entirely fixed, were pretty minimal. Unfortunately, the show had spent its entire tryout period in New York, and when the preview versions first opened, the show was an embarrassingly chaotic disaster. Plenty of hit shows have had just as much trouble on tryout, but they did it in the great cultural outback of America, not in New York with ringside seats available to anyone who bought a ticket. Previewing in New York had worked for the team’s last show, Sweeney Todd, but that was a streamlined, near-perfect show that only required some minor fine-tuning by the time it made it to an actual stage. It did not work for an ultra-complex concept piece like this, especially one with an inherently tricky concept.
But Sondheim refused to give up on the show, and a lot of work was done in the intervening years in various smallish productions all over the map. Now, insofar as it matters, the show has essentially been ‘fixed’. It still has some incidental flaws…the backwards story can still be a bit confusing in places, and we still have to deal with a protagonist who’s less interesting than his supporting leads. But the show has some monumental assets, two in particular, and the flaws have by now been tamed to the point where they are outweighed by the show’s strengths.
The first of the show’s assets is the score, one of the all-time greatest efforts by the greatest theater composer of his generation. Because this story was about musical-theater songwriters from the classic Broadway era, Sondheim took it as an opportunity to write the kind of catchy, snazzy show tunes that he had always loved, but that had never been right for any of his previous projects. Every single number is superb, with some of the catchiest, most accessible tunes of the composer’s career, his usual dazzling lyrics, and a clever construction gimmick: because the show is told backward, we hear fragmentary reprises before the main numbers they’re quoting.
Among the score’s many, many highlights are two beautiful ballads that sound like they could have been hits back in the day, “Not a Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going”; the quietly heartbreaking “Like It Was”; the dazzling monologue-song “Franklin Sheperd, inc.”; the irresistible charm song “Old Friends”; the bitingly cynical “Now You Know”; a spoof of Sixties topical reviews with some bittersweet subtext, “Bobby and Jackie and Jack”; “Opening Doors”, an extended musical scene with a middle section that is a brilliant takedown of Sondheim’s critics; and the ecstatically beautiful final anthem of hope and optimism, “Our Time”.
The show’s other great strength is that the backwards construction makes for an incredibly bittersweet and evocative emotional effect. The final image of three youngsters on a rooftop with infinite possibilities before them, while we the audience know how things will really turn out for them, is one of the most moving endings in all of musical theater. The people who call Sondheim cold and emotionless have presumably never seen a good production of this show—I don’t care how stupid you are, you’re not going to see this ending and come away calling it unemotional.
The truth is that George Furth’s book for those show, so often derided, is actually extremely well-written. The dialogue is full of witty one-liners, and the book takes full advantage of the emotional possibilities of the concept, with many devastating moments. It’s also a significant improvement on the mediocre Kaufman and Hart play of the same name that formed the musical’s source material. Franklin Sheperd may never be quite as interesting a character as we might wish, but he at least makes his own choices to seal his damnation; Richard Niles, the character in the original play, generally just lets others make his decisions for him.
There are those who point to the show’s remaining flaws and call it a failure, but I think they’re maintaining unrealistic expectations regarding its creator. In reality, very few of Sondheim’s shows are flawless compositions: people consider them masterpieces because their good qualities vastly outweigh their flaws, which is certainly the case for Merrily now. And frankly, there are no shortage of flawed masterpieces in musical theater even outside of Sondheim—look at Camelot or Funny Girl, for example. The real question is not whether every conceivable flaw has been eliminated from the composition, but whether the show’s good qualities are worth the trade-off, and in this case they certainly are.