“Merrily We Roll Along,” which opens the “Encores!” series Wednesday night at New York City Center, features one of Stephen Sondheim’s catchiest scores, full of songs that have gone on to become standards.
Nevertheless, it had a miserable time on Broadway.
The Nov. 1, 1981, opening was delayed twice, the choreographer and lead actor were replaced in previews and theatergoers were fleeing at intermission.
“In those days you didn’t have the Internet to chew him up,” said James Lapine, a longtime Sondheim collaborator who’s directing the “Encores!” edition. Even without amateur critics carping at keyboards, “Merrily” lasted just 16 regular performances.
What a difference three decades makes. “Merrily” is booked for the longest “Encores!” engagement ever -- 15 performances -- and demand for seats from producers and other insiders is robust, said Jack Viertel, the series’ artistic director.
Although “Encores!” launched Broadway revivals of “Chicago,” “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Gypsy,” Lapine is eager to lower expectations.
“I don’t think we’re bringing it back as much as celebrating it,” he said in a City Center conference room. “I have no idea how it will be received.”
Back in Time
Adapted by George Furth from the 1934 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play, it tells the story of three friends -- a composer, a lyricist and a novelist. The story is told in reverse order -- from 1981 to 1957 -- as characters devolve from cynical and successful middle-age to ambitious and idealistic youth.
Sondheim wrote in his book “Finishing the Hat” that he and director Hal Prince erred in casting actors in their late teens and early twenties. The intention was that they be disguised as middle-aged sophisticates and become their innocent selves as the evening progressed.
Instead, “actors that young, no matter how talented, rarely have the experience or skills to play anything but themselves, and in this case even that caused them difficulties,” he wrote. (An exception was 21-year Jason Alexander, of “Seinfeld” fame. “...it was as if he had been born middle-aged,” Sondheim wrote.)
Out of Ashes
The failure of the show ended, at least for two decades, Sondheim’s unmatched collaboration with Prince, which had produced the landmark shows “Company,” “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd,” among others.
Sondheim went on to create “Sunday in the Park with George” and two other shows with Lapine. In 1985 Lapine staged a revised “Merrily” in La Jolla, California, with a more mature cast. He introduced projections to guide the audience to each period of the action.
“The thing you do is try not to make it something the audience has to think about,” Lapine said.
Viertel, then a critic with the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, was impressed.
“From the ashes of one of the unhappiest of Broadway failures has come a musical that can stand among the finest works the genre has ever offered,” he wrote.
The best-known songs include “Old Friends,” the torchy ballad “Not a Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going.”
Fell in Love
“I totally fell in love with it,” said Celia Keenan-Bolger, a 34-year-old actress who first heard the score as a teenager in Detroit. “It was about friends who wanted to be in show business. The show has always resonated with me so deeply.”
After a Roundabout Theatre Co. revival fell through, Lapine approached Viertel about an “Encores!” staging.
The leads at “Encores!” are Keenan-Bolger, Colin Donnell (“Anything Goes”) and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer and star of the musical “In the Heights” who’s more closely identified with rap and hip-hop than ballads.
In “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim describes the original Broadway production, for all its tumult and disappointment, as “the most fun I’ve ever had on a single show.”
Lapine, who has his own history with “Merrily,” is skeptical.
“I think it’s like childbirth,” he said. “You remember the joyous part.”
(“Merrily We Roll Along” runs Feb 8 through 19 at City Center, 131 W. 55th St. Information: +1-212-581-1212; http://www.nycitycenter.org.)