NEW YORK -- Shall we start with the distant past? Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along" was one of the composing giant's few flops. And when it opened on Broadway in 1981, even he knew it.
"The theatergoers who didn't leave at intermission did a lot of squirming, and with reason: they felt cheated," Sondheim writes in "Finishing the Hat," the second volume of his collected lyrics and commentary.
Now fast-forward to the happy present: New York City Center has dug up a revised version for a short run that started Thursday as part of its Encore! series. No one left at intermission. Sondheim was spotted bashfully sprinting out of the auditorium as the actors bowed for their standing ovation, a smile on his face.
Writing events backward in time is a lot harder than it seems – a fact that Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics and music, and book writer George Furth will probably attest after the once-tortured origins of "Merrily We Roll Along."
But the City Center production gets some fresh help from Rob Berman's music direction and Dan Knechtges's musical staging, not to mention having James Lapine in the director's chair. There's also no denying some fantastic Sondheim songs, including "Not a Day Goes By," "Old Friends" and the title tune.
The show, already revised by Lapine in 1985, is supposed to be stripped down – a concert more than a full show – but the scripts in the actors' hands have disappeared by the end, and the show, complete with costumes, props and smart projections by Wendall K. Harrington, looks virtually done. It only runs until Feb. 19.
Original audiences of "Merrily We Roll Along" may have been confused by a story that goes from 1976 to 1957 as it examines the friendship of three artists. The use of projections – including doctored photos of the actors posing with Nixon, the Kennedys and the Beatles – capture the time shifting perfectly. Shards of many of the songs filter through time magically.
This all is tricky business: Alcoholics become teetotalers as the show progresses. Divorces lead to secret assignations, which lead to previous marriages. The show also starts with unhappiness, broken marriages and hurt feelings, only to end with hope. Those who stick around through the Act 1 gloom get a bittersweet tale about youth and dreams – and how we all eventually careen off the tracks.
The cast is made up of Colin Donnell, who plays Franklin Shepard, a puffed-up Hollywood mogul who becomes, by the end, an idealistic young Broadway composer. Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Charley Kringas, Shepard's one-time songwriting partner and best friend, and Celia Keenan-Bolger plays Mary Flynn, their loyal but disillusioned friend. Betsy Wolfe plays Shepard's wife Beth, and Elizabeth Stanley portrays Gussie Carnegie, the star of the musical team's first Broadway hit and Shepard's lover.
The voices are often uneven, but the energy and acting chops are there, especially from "In the Heights" writer-actor Miranda, and Keenan-Bolger ("The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"), who both play up the laughs, the awkwardness of geekdom and the sadness of loss. There's a tremendous wistfulness that emerges from watching angry, unyielding people melt into wide-eyed optimists over the course of two hours.
In the show's prologue, one of the lyrics warns "Never look back." Thank goodness City Center did by reviving a once-troubled "Merrily We Roll Along."