After it was over, we all lingered in the lobby of LaGuardia High School, not wanting the fabulous evening to end. David Loud, now a successful musical director of such hits as Ragtime and Master Class, harkened back to those days between October 8 and November 28, 1981, when he appeared on Broadway in this musical called Merrily We Roll Along. Now, he was basking in the glory of Merrily We Roll Along: The Original Broadway Cast Reunion Concert, a benefit for Musical Theatre Works.
"Back then," Loud said, "it was so painful to see and hear an audience hate so much what we loved so much. Now, to have people love it the way we did was so wonderful." He waved his arm to acknowledge the lobby filled with his two dozen other cast members from 1981 and 2002. "We were
only together for four months, but these are the people who fought that war with me." We made love, not war, on Monday night, as -- I daresay -- the Merrily reunion concert surpassed everyone's high expectations. A musical about looking back had those of us who sat in the Alvin for any one of the 52 previews or (gasp!) 16 performances looking back and gave a younger generation the chance to see what they'd only heard on various cast albums: Merrily We Roll Along is a most accomplished score and the warmest that Sondheim has ever written.
The evening started with a speech by the most famous alumnus of the troupe: Jason Alexander, whose biggest credit is so well known to all of America that he didn't even bother listing it in the program. Alexander got a peck of laughs when he said, "Most of us have not aged well at all. [Conductor] Paul Gemignani looks the same, but he didn't look well then." He also noted that the concert was being held not in a Broadway theater but in a high school auditorium and noted that, "because Merrily starts at a high school graduation, this makes it an environmental setting." Then he shrugged and conceded that they'd gotten a helluva break on the price for the place. (Should we infer that this was because Hal Prince, the show's original director, once did a musical about LaGuardia?) Alexander also had a good deal of tenderness to dispense, from mentioning that "We've all been trading pictures of our children" to admitting to both composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Prince, sitting close to the stage in the audience, "We want to say what we didn't know enough to say 21 years ago: You brought this group together," he said, his voice breaking with emotion. "You never disappointed us. We hope we didn't disappoint you -- and hope we don't disappoint you tonight."
Not a chance. After Alexander noted (accurately) that we were about to hear "one of the most kick-ass overtures in Broadway history," we got even more than we expected. First off, that overture offered more than what we know from the recording, which doesn't include the extra sections of "Now You Know" and "Good Thing Going" that were heard in the Alvin in 1981 and at LaGuardia on Monday. As the 20-piece orchestra played the overture, we saw projected upon a screen on the back wall the marquee that crowned the then-Alvin Theatre for the last few months of 1981. Much has been made about having your "name up in lights on Broadway," but that rarely happens -- yet Merrily literally had its name up in lights on that marquee. Those lights flashed back then -- first "Merrily," then "We Roll," then "Along," and then the whole title. It was worth a visit to 52nd Street just to see it, and it was certainly worth seeing at least a still photo of it on Monday, though that photo was soon trumped by pictures of the production itself with those wonderful kids aged 15-25.
Then the adults, now aged 36-46, filed on in their red graduation gowns to tumultuous applause from us. Some of the men have lost hair but none of the cast had lost any of its spirit. On this magical night, almost all of them were there. Sally Klein, the original Beth, and Tom Shea, the original bartender, weren't -- but we were told in advance that they wouldn't be. And though Giancarlo Esposito was listed in the program, he wasn't actually up there. (Let's hope he'll be present at the Seesaw reunion concert.)
Right from their beautiful harmony on "The Hills of Tomorrow," you knew they cast would be all right. And they were. The chorus occasionally used books, but the principals dispensed with them and never missed a beat. Suddenly, I thought back to a few months ago, when I was doing a panel discussion at Goodspeed and saw a woman who worked there with a name tag reading "Harriet Kittner." "Ah," I said, "you were terrific in Joan in 1975 in Boston." She was astonished that I remembered her -- but I was even more astonished when she, without missing a breath, delivered every word of a song she sang 27 long years ago. While I'm sure Ms. Kittner was happy to be cast in Joan, it surely couldn't compare to being selected by Sondheim and Prince for their new musical. This was the most important event of most of these 24 kids' lives, and I'm sure that many of them still remember word for word what they did more than two decades ago. They sure seemed to on Monday.
Merrily, of course, is the story of the disintegrating friendship of three kids who hope to make it in the arts: Franklin Shepard as a composer, Charley Kringas as a lyricist, and Mary Flynn as a novelist.
High hopes get dashed as the years progress, just like in Allegro -- the first show on which Sondheim worked as a gofer for his mentor, lyricist-librettist Oscar Hammerstein. But this one is more heartbreaking because it's told in reverse.
After the cast sang the graduation hymn at the beginning (ending?) of the show on Monday night, they went right into the title song -- but this time, when they finished, they got applause. That did not happen in 1981, and I blame Sondheim and Prince for that. Back then, as now, the number seguéd directly into "Rich and Happy" and it was a full 10 minutes before a button arrived to signal the audience to clap, since they didn't the show and didn't know where the "end" of the title song was. I do believe -- and Sweet Smell of Success made this mistake, too -- that you can't let a crowd go too long without applauding in a musical because each audience member needs to hear everyone around him reinforce the fact that what he has just heard was terrific. Granted, pop operas can go for scenes without applause and there's no problem with that because they play more like operas; but traditional musicals need people to applaud early and often to set a tone of excitement.
By the way, Geoffrey Horne, who was brought in during previews of the original production to play the elder Franklin Shepard, was not needed, for Walton had aged to fill that bill in addition to playing Frank in the character's younger years. What a galvanizing performance he gave, truly grabbing this bull by the horns. Walton has been around plenty since Merrily and he knew he could carry the show -- and did. He was delightful when miming an imaginary "Alas, poor Yorick" skull in his hand while delivering the Gielgud lyric in "Bobby and Jackie and Jack." And take it from a Bostonian who grew up during the JFK era, Walton's Kennedy accent was more pronounced and better than ever. (For the young 'uns who didn't get the "Sahgeant" joke: Sargeant Shriver ran Kennedy's campaign in 1960, and after the election was selected to head the Peace Corps.)
Lonny Price, shod in his trademark sneakers, was still finding things in his Charley character, singing "Yyyyand I go" in "Franklin Shepard, Inc." and being rewarded with a big laugh. He held the "have" in the phrase "best thing that ever could have happened" so long that he almost plotzed from lack of breath. In "It's a Hit!" when he sang the lines about selling out, he looked squarely at Alexander, who enjoyed the good-natured jibe along with the audience as visions of fried chicken danced in everyone's heads. Finally, when Price tried to get the would-be backers of Charley and Frank's show to listen to the second rendition of "Good Thing Going" in Act II, he was as staunch as Paul Henreid was when singing "La Marseillaise" in Casablanca.
Ann Morrison, now totally devoid of her baby fat, was galvanizing in her numbers, be they plaintive ("Like It Was") or as no-nonsense ("Now You Know"). Any of us who have heard the cast album knew that the voices of the leads had, of course, aged -- but not for the worst. What had had the fizz of Coca-Cola now had the richness of cognac, and the three were more moving than before as a team. They all simultaneously stopped just before the end of "Old Friends" to catch a long breath, which they may have needed or may have just wanted us to think they needed. Similarly, when they all collapsed to the floor at the end of the song, it could have been out of exhaustion or, possibly, to kid us that they were bushed. But when they got up and indulged in a group hug, we knew that their affection for each other was profoundly real.
Jason Alexander proved to be a good team player, staying in the back row of the opening number. He tore down the house with his section of "Opening Doors" where, as producer Joe Jefferson, he complains: "There's not a tune you can hum." (He was also terrific doing this in 1981, and though I've attended many a Merrily since then, I've never seen anyone come close to the way he suavely delivers this material.) Liz Callaway, subbing for Sally Klein, got to sing "Not a Day Goes By" -- for Klein, not Walton, originally did it in previews. She had sung only the first five syllables before the song got recognition applause, thanks to all those renderings it's received in recordings and cabarets. Callaway also joined Walton and Price for some Irish step-dancing in "Bobby and Jackie and Jack," which got cheers, as did their throwing around a football. (The Kennedys' penchant for touch-football was well known in the early '60s).
The principals performed while the chorus was situated stage left and right, sitting on -- yes, once again -- rows of bleachers. There was a lagniappe of songs not on the cast album ("Growing Up" and "The Blob"). For the final scene, the cast came out in recreations of the T-shirts employed in the original production -- and that got a big hand, too. Once again, Walton was in a red "Frank" shirt, Price in a "Best Friend" blue, and Morrison in a "Pal" green. (Tonya Pinkins had "Inquiring Reporter" on hers.) As soon as the cast had finished "Our Time," we all stood, even though many of us knew there was still a "Hills of Tomorrow" reprise. I guess we couldn't wait to let them know just how much we loved them.
After the school anthem was sung again, we leapt to our feet again. For those of us who, like Mary, wanted it the way that it was, this was the closest we'd ever get. So many of the show's lines and lyrics registered on so many different levels. "Some things you don't forget."
"Time goes by." "Party!" "It was good, it was really good." "I want it back." "You and I get continued next week." "It's not that nothing went wrong." "What a time to be alive!" "Being what we can." "Years from now, we'll remember and we'll come back."
What a chill we got at the end as the cast members turned around and looked at the enormous photo hanging from the rafters: a photo of all of them in 1981 in their graduation gowns. You'd never know you were looking at a show that had a shorter run than Whoop-Up, Ankles Aweigh, or Sarava. But, as Charley tells Frank after "Good Thing Going," true greatness is knowing when to get off. Sondheim and Prince knew when in 1981, after reading the poisonous reviews. "Okay," they seemed to say, "we know when we're not wanted. We'll leave." And they did, which made many of us hunger even more to see this show again. (It's the only Sondheim musical that's never been published in a hardcover or trade paperback edition.) Had they defiantly held on for four, six, nine months, there wouldn't have been the same sorry-grateful sadness-joy that rocked La Guardia High School on Monday night. Despite the fuzzy sound, this was the event of the season. (Yes, I know: The 2002-2003 semester is only a few weeks old. But I'm sure that, in June, this is the one we'll still be talking about.)
At the end of the show proper, a reprise of "Old Friends" had us clapping in rhythm. Then Alexander introduced Price, who admitted that finding a director for the reunion concert was "a sensitive issue," since he's become such a crackerjack stager himself. But he rightly lauded Kathleen Marshall for, bit by bit, putting it together. Then he praised us for raising nearly $200,000 for Musical Theatre Works and thereby helping to support "all the future Franks and Charleys out there" who want to write new musicals.
Finally, old friends Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince were brought to the stage. To date, Merrily We Roll Along was the last time they worked together, possibly because each needed to try something -- and someone -- new after a decade of dazzling creations. But the pain of that too-long
hiatus was ameliorated by our knowing they'll be working together again on Gold. Until then, we will have memories of this golden performance of Merrily to enrich us.