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Friendship Is the Key to This 'Merrily We Roll Along'

Date: Feb 27, 2019

How Fiasco Theater reinvented Stephen Sondheim's most cherished flop


Even though Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along premiered back in 1981, every major revival feels like a new musical. That's because the songwriter and a few of his trusted collaborators have revised the show multiple times over the decades, hoping to perfect this beloved Broadway bomb that inspired a moving documentary and a devoted fan base.

For Merrily's latest reincarnation at Roundabout Theatre Company, however, Sondheim let Fiasco Theater lead the reinvention. The innovative troupe, which earned raves for its scaled-down take on Sondheim's Into the Woods four years ago, was granted unprecedented access to his archives for this staging. They've created a version that blends the original Broadway production and the York Theatre Company's lauded 1994 mounting with elements from other iterations and the eponymous play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart that served as the source material.

A showbiz musical told in reverse chronological order from 1980 to 1957, Merrily focuses on a three creative pals -- composer Frank (Ben Steinfeld), novelist Mary (Jessie Austrian), and playwright and lyricist Charlie (Manu Narayan) -- whose careers and lives don't turn out as they initial hope. The unusual structure means it starts at the end and goes backward in time, so middle-aged disillusionment gives way to youthful optimism instead of the other way around. For audiences unfamiliar with the show, following the narrative can be tricky. That's why Fiasco's three co-artistic directors -- Steinfeld, Austrian and Merrily director Noah Brody -- spent almost four years developing a streamlined interpretation that zeroes in on what they consider the show's heart: friendship.

"We had a real wrestling match with the scripts, which are so different from each other, and we experimented wildly in three different workshops," recalls Austrian. "The story precisely weaves a lot of detailed threads. We spent a lot of early workshop time following those threads out and getting into the weeds with certain characters. It's so rich, it's easy to lose the forest for the trees. You could do different adaptations that focus on different things. For us, when things started to coalesce was when we focused on the friendship and what we could bring to it since we're friends who make art together."

Indeed, in some ways, Brody, Austrian and Steinfeld seem like Frank, Mary and Charlie if things had worked out better. The three met as aspiring theatre-makers in the Brown/Trinity Graduate Program. Fresh out of school, they founded Fiasco in 2007 and, four years later, Austrian and Brody married. (If she were real, Mary, who's wrecked by her unrequited love for Frank, would be particularly peeved about that last part.)

Of course collaborating on any show, especially one as notoriously difficult as Merrily, is stressful for even the healthiest relationships, and Austrian admits the development process for this production was particularly arduous. "This show tested us!" she says. "As the musical illustrates, it's really, really rewarding when your professional and personal lives overlap. It's incredible to get to work with my husband and best friend, but it's challenging, too. It takes so much care and so much thought and it's really easy to screw it up. We're trying to see this show as a cautionary tale for us and make sure we don't make the same mistakes as the characters do in their later lives. It's really easy to make art when you're 20. When you're 40 and you have a kid and a mortgage, that shit's hard."

Fiasco's most radical changes to Merrily include reducing the cast to six and editing it down to one act, but Austrian says these adjustments enhance the storytelling. "The play is about the experience of time," she explains. "The audience's experience moves forward while the characters move backward. Because of that, we didn't want to give the audience a chance to step away for intermission."

Eliminating the intermission actually came out of Fiasco's interrogation of the former first act finale, "Now You Know." Usually, it's presented as a jazzy, upbeat showstopper, but they questioned that approach. "I was struggling with how to make the lyrics really land," she recalls. "It felt like they were trying to do two things at once: Have this deeply human moment -- he just lost custody of his child -- with an old-school musical number that had to build to intermission. So in an early workshop we wondered, what if this wasn't an Act I closer? What if we take that off the table and it doesn't have to be a number that gets big applause?"

The show's orchestrator, Alexander Gemignani, created a new sober arrangement that totally changes the feel and focus of the song. "It's centered around this repeated quarter note, this feeling like time is standing still for Frank," says Austrian. "It's our biggest change in the show. We worried Stephen might hate it, so we were delighted that he saw what we were after. It's a very new sonic version, but I think the reason he is on board with it is that it's the writing we're getting at."

And that's been the philosophy behind this entire revisal: putting the writing first. "It's about relationships and the whole messy human experience," Austrian says of the show. "Sondheim's just the greatest writer. He's like Shakespeare."


Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Manu Narayan, Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld in Merrily We Roll Along. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Merrily We Roll Along is occasionally at the TKTS Booths.

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