At opening night of the City Center Encores presentation of Merrily We Roll Along, a man two seats away from me was weeping, full on Terms of Endearment sobs. It wasn’t the end of the show, when the infamous “told in reverse” musical winds its way back to the innocent beginnings of a trio of old friends (who earlier in the show/later in chronology had been torn apart.) It wasn’t at the emotional climax of one of Stephen Sondheim’s gorgeously emotional and savvily show-biz songs detailing the travails of growing up and making compromises. It wasn’t even as the overture began with a brassy strut, tears brought on by the thrill of a big Broadway band. No, he was crying no more than a phrase into “Not a Day Goes By,” the oft belted at concerts (see videos below) dramatic show piece sung by a betrayed wife outside her divorce hearing.
The thing is, though Betsy Wolfe sang it beautifully and with admirable restraint, the song hadn’t really gotten going yet. There was nothing to cry about on stage. This sniffling man was crying at the idea of the show, the show that he had built in his head after years of listening to each version of its amazing score or reading each new edit of its difficult to wrangle book by George Furth. He was enjoying Merrily, but not the one on the stage.
What is on stage is fine (and at times thrilling) but still searching to meet the perfection that seems to exist in much of the audience’s imagination. The score remains a rich, affecting blast of show tune heaven, densely packed with truth that rocks you as you age into and regretfully recognize yourself in the characters. The book feels clearer than other drafts, though revelations of “oh, that’s why that happened” click into place with a loud, slightly distracting metaphoric snap. The actors playing the central trio work mightily to stay atop the backward rush of events (and the limited rehearsal time), with Colin Donnell fitting most comfortably into Sondheim’s musical world and Celia Keenan-Bolger making the most of her character’s overlooked “gal pal” one liners. Perhaps because they don’t have to shoulder the weight of the reverse arc, the two supporting female performances are dynamite; Betsy Wolfe and Elizabeth Stanley offer sugar and spice contrasting visions of wronged wives, Wolfe sweetly real and Stanley boldly playing to the rafters.
In the end, though, this production is a thought-provoking show that never quite works its way into your heart. The “perfect” version will always remain just over the horizon or tucked away in a private place. And come to think of it that seems, well, perfect for a show about the illusions we cling to and the lies we tell ourselves as we age.
Curious why this show has such a mystique? Just watch these diva-rific versions of “Not a Day Goes By”…
Bernadette. The Sondheim Celebration. I had the cassette version (hush!) and played this track over and over. It is pure, unadulterated musical theater theatrics. (And I’d lay a hefty bet this is the version the crying man was thinking of when he starting sobbing.)
Audra McDonald. I’d never heard this medley of “Not a Day” and Dick Tracy’s “What Can You Lose” before, but I like it a lot. And Audra makes it a master class in songs as a monologue.
Marin Mazzie. It’s a horrible bootlegged video but what a joy to hear the song in context from a decades-old DC production of the show.
What the what? I’m still unsure what that was. Shawn “Sunny Came Home” Colvin, Joan “God was One of Us” Osborne and Hootie? I told you this music has seeped into our heads so that we feel like we know the show even when we don’t. Now, go back and listen to Bernadette again.