So where were all of you 42 years ago?
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG certainly could have used you then.
All right, many of you who are reading this weren’t yet born, or you hadn’t yet reached theatergoing age. Perhaps you were living too far from New York City, between October 8 and November 28, 1981, to see the much-anticipated new musical by Stephen Sondheim, George Furth and Harold Prince.
Or if you were in town, you instead decided to splurge $100 for a front row seat to witness eight hours of THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY or attend the MY FAIR LADY revival so you could say that you saw Rex Harrison play Henry Higgins on stage.
Anything but that show on 52nd Street that had poisonous word-of-mouth during previews.
You may have simply missed MERRILY because you believed what Frank Rich called it in his notorious November 17th New York Times review: “A shambles.”
Look how appreciated MERRILY is now. True, what’s currently on Broadway isn’t quite the same show that those few 1981 audiences encountered. Reportedly, many of them didn’t even see the entire show, for intermissions resulted in many attendees putting on their coats and rushing to catch a cab.
Now, after Furth’s many rewrites and rethinkings – as well, of course, as Sondheim’s new songs – MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is much more polished. However, one of the real reasons that people appreciate it now has a great deal to do what happened on March 1, 1982, when the world received The Original Cast Album That Validated the Musical.
Once it was released, no matter where you’d been living, or if you were a New Yorker who just couldn’t afford $35 for an orchestra seat, you could finally hear what Sondheim wrote – and as many times as you needed. As Rich would write six years later about INTO THE WOODS, “Time and second hearings always tell with a Sondheim score.”
People didn’t just give the excellent album a second hearing, but probably a ninety-second hearing on their turntables or cassette players. Attend the show now at the Hudson Theatre, and you’ll only have to wait literally 64 seconds into the overture to know how much MERRILY is now appreciated. That’s when “Good Thing Going” starts and the audience gives it recognition applause to show its respect, love and admiration for the great song that it is.
Recognition applause! Sure, Frank Sinatra recorded it (and his recording has smartly been incorporated into many a revisal since), but his rendition never charted. Is there any doubt that it became appreciated through the original cast album?
You’ll certainly appreciate the Overture more on that first recording. There, 27 musicians played it; at the Hudson, 13 do. Oh, the current management does try to compensate with amplification, but one doesn’t have to be an audiophile to hear the difference.
Still, the score is there – the Tony-nominated score, may we add. It was the only nomination the production received. (Was Lonny Price out the night the nominators attended? Each performance I witnessed resulted in titanic applause after his “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”)
Sondheim lost to Maury Yeston’s worthy score for NINE, but here’s one of those many times when we wonder how the voting went. In political races, we’re shown precisely how many votes each candidate received on the ballots. Imagine if we had that with Tony races. How far away was Sondheim from besting Yeston? By the time the voters were checking off their preferences, the original cast album had been recently released and was showing the score’s worth.
Nothing against NINE or Yeston, but would the results be the same today? Wouldn’t it be nice if the bean counters who tended to the ballots would now spill the beans?
Since 1981, there have been a half-dozen recordings of MERRILY including one featuring the cast from (here’s a Sondheim irony) Barcelona. The musical that concludes with “Our Time” has obviously found its time and its rightful place in the musical theater world.
And speaking of that song, how about the Furth’s line that precedes it: Franklin says, “What a time to be starting out!” How that must have inspired Sondheim to write one of his most beautiful songs, for who could relate to that sentiment as much as he? After all, the scene takes place on Oct. 4, 1957 – only eight days after the opening of WEST SIDE STORY, his first-ever show. It was indeed a great time to jumpstart a career, for the Broadway musical still had the pedigree of greatness that the nation respected.
And now, after years of waiting – and, sad to say, too late for any of its three original creators to witness it – MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG has become a surefire, genuine, walk-away-blockbuster, lines-down-to-Broadway, boffola, sensational-box-office-lollapalooza, gargantuan hit.
That brings up something else. When Thomas Z. Shepard was in the studio for the original cast album session on November 29, 1981, he of course had the cast record every song in the score. However, time constraints on the so-called long-playing record prevented him from including the second-act opener “It’s a Hit!” on the album.
Some years later, though, when compact discs allowed more time, “It’s a Hit!” made its way out of the vaults and onto those silver slivers.
How ironic! When that unappreciated musical wasn’t a hit, “It’s a Hit!” went unheard. Since productions across the Hudson made it into a hit long before the current version at the Hudson, “It’s a Hit!” enhanced what was already The Original Cast Album That Validated the Musical. Hear the then-unknown Jason Alexander and the rest of the cast do it, and you’ll swear you’re listening to something that has always been – yes – a hit.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.