Twenty years ago, who'd have guessed that Merrily We Roll Along would be so admired by musical theater enthusiasts? It was exactly 20 years ago today, on November 28, 1981, that the show--with a score by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, and direction by Harold Prince--closed after a humiliating 16 performances. Yet, since then, Merrily has received productions day after day after day after day after day after day after day. And how many two-week flops yield three cast albums?

But no one knew that 20 years ago at the Alvin Theatre--now the Neil Simon, where The Music Man resides. Merrily was about a music man, too: one Franklin Shepard, a young composer who befriends fledgling book writer-lyricist Charley Kringas. Both dream about writing for Broadway and finally score in 1964 with Musical Husbands, such a hit that it is described as Funny Girl, Fiddler, and Dolly! combined. Or, to describe it another way: "The songs all have bullets / The theater's so full, it's / A cinch for a Pulitz / -er Prize." (Don't give me credit for that one; it's a Sondheim lyric written for "It's a Hit" but that clever triple-rhyme was dropped. Now you know!)

I attended Merrily's first preview on October 8, 1981. By my count, 176,544 hours have elapsed since then, and I've loved the show for 176,543 of them. Oh, it started out like a songfest, with The Last Great Broadway Musical Overture; but after that, during the first act of that first preview, I was in misery as I saw composer Frank Shepard cheat on his wife without feeling particularly sorry about it and witnessed Frank and Charley grow to hate each other while their old friend Mary Flynn drank like a drunk.

I was so disappointed. I'd seen early if not first performances of Boston tryouts of five consecutive Sondheim shows (Do I Hear a Waltz?, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Pacific Overtures) and had moved to New York in time to catch previews of Sweeney Todd, so I was really looking forward to this new work by the master. But there I was, during the intermission, slumping in abject misery in my 11th row orchestra seat. Not for long, though. I know that drama needs conflict but, frankly, I could watch people be nice to each other all night long, and that's what happened during the second act of Merrily. Because the action of the show moves backwards in time, we saw Frank, Charley, and Mary in the throes of early success and loving friendship, and I was in heaven with them. Maybe the book was a little lumpy, but the score was very warm for Sondheim.

What else do I remember of that first preview? The T-shirts that each actor wore to tell us who his character was ("Best Pal," said Mary's; "Unemployed Actor," proclaimed the one worn by a waiter); a swimming pool with a light blue paper top that ripped when someone (purposely) fell into it; a scene set in the '60s where Frank wore a beard and had an apartment filled with throw pillows that were shaped like candy bars and adorned with the logos of Butterfingers and other popular treats. Most of all, I recall both the incredible ovation that Lonny Price got when he finished his first big song, "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," and the look of disappointment that James Weissenbach (Frank) had on his face when he came out for the final curtain call and the applause that had been so strong for Price and Ann Morrison (Mary) abated appreciably.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim
I saw Merrily only once again, and that was the closing performance. Sure, I would have preferred to see it many more times but, in a way, I'm glad I was there solely for the beginning and the end. When that curtain went up on the first preview, there were 26 young actors dressed in graduation robes, everyone with a broad, confident smile on his face. Each of them must have thought, "This is just the beginning of my brilliant career! After all, the legendary Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim have handpicked me! Sure, I'll honor my contract and stay with the show for a year but, after that, nothing can stop me from becoming rich and famous--and therefore happy, too." After that first preview, however, the poisonous word-of-mouth began to be heard. As for me, I'd seen Prince and Sondheim improve their previous shows, so I naturally assumed they'd fix this one, too. But, as Mary sings at the end of Act I, "God don't answer prayers a lot." Things didn't look good as James Weissenbach was replaced by James Walton and choreographer Ron Field was replaced by Larry Fuller. Costumer Judith Dolan stayed on, but had to do a lot of redesigning.

Every time I take the shuttle to Boston's Logan Airport and pass the gift shop, I remember Monday, November 17, 1981, when I stood there and read Frank Rich's review of Merrily in the The New York Times. To be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one's heart broken at regular intervals, Rich wrote, before adding such words as "a shambles," "fatuous," "facile," "labored," "unfortunate," "wasted," "upsetting." "My God," I thought, "no doubt about it now. It really is over." Still, I didn't expect that "all over" would mean two weeks. But it was ultimately a smart decision to close the show so quickly. As Charley tells Frank in Act II, "You know what true greatness is? It's knowing when to get off." And Prince, Sondheim and Company did. You don't like us? We won't fight you. We'll just go away.

Which brings me back to that final performance on Saturday night, November 28, 1981. The curtain went up on those same young actors, still smiling--but bravely now, not confidently. Glassy-eyed, yet able to mask their totally broken hearts. On Monday, they'd have "Unemployed Actor" metaphorically written across their T-shirts as they applied for jobs as waiters.

So, what happened to those kids, the Class of '81? First, the triumvirate: Jim Walton has worked steadily, and is currently at the Paper Mill Playhouse doing the Bob Hope role in Red, Hot and Blue. This summer, Ann Morrison played Daisy Gamble (beautifully) in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever at Music Theatre of Wichita. Lonny Price, whom many assumed in 1982 would receive a Tony nomination for playing Charley but didn't, finally got one this year--not for performing (though he should have) or directing (though he should have), but for co-writing A Class Act.

Of the performers in smaller roles, there was one name we knew already: Giancarlo Esposito (Valedictorian), the kid who had sung "Spanglish" in Seesaw eight years earlier. And there were several names we didn't know then but certainly know now: Liz Callaway (Nightclub Waitress), has since been Tony-nominated. Tonya Pinkins (Gwen) was also Tony-nominated and won for Jelly's Last Jam. Daisy Prince (Meg), whom we knew then as the director/co-producer's daughter, has turned out to have her daddy's eye for talent (she's how we got Jason Robert Brown) and direction. David Loud (Ted) not only became a nifty musical director but also proved himself an excellent actor when he played the pianist in Master Class. And you may very well know Donna Marie Elio (Terry), too: She's now Donna Marie Asbury, currently starring in Chicago and terrific in it.

Gary Stevens (Waiter), arguably the world's greatest fan of A Chorus Line, co-wrote The Longest Line, a book about that classic musical. Terry Finn (Gussie) was in such movies as Super Mario Brothers and Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. David Cady (Jerome) played Beatles impresario Brian Epstein in Prick up Your Ears. Maryrose Wood (Kate) has written a musical called The Gift, and she and Mary Johansen toured with Sweeney Todd in 1982. David Shine (Les) works for the Blank Theatre Company in California. Abby Pogrebin (Evelyn) became a 60 Minutes journalist. Clark Sayre was recently seen as Theater Type #4 in the pilot of The Education of Max Bickford.

At least two others have become teachers: Marc Moritz (Jeffrey) at the Second City Training Center, Marianna (now Manna) Allen at CAP 21. As for Forest D. Ray, James Bonkovsky, Janie Gleason, Sally Klein, Paul Hyams, and Steven Jacob, your guess is as good as mine. For all I know, Tom Shea, who played The Bartender, is now a Bartender. Oh, yes--and then there was the actor playing Joe Josephson, who produced Frank and Charley's Musical Husbands. Jason Alexander would be the first of the troupe to win a Tony, eight years later, for Jerome Robbins' Broadway. But, needless to say, that wasn't what made him something; a show about nothing did.

All right, Alexander's new TV series didn't work out. But that means he'll be free if a 20th anniversary Merrily We Roll Along concert happens. Let's hope for such a concert--and another Broadway production, too. Not a day goes by that I don't want one.


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