I'm afraid the news this morning is glum. "Merrily We Roll Along," the new Stephen Sondheim musical which came to the Alvin last night, is a dud.
Generally speaking (though "Oklahoma!" is a notable exception to the rule), a weak play is a poor source for a musical, and the triteness that afflicted Kaufman and Hart's ambitious and unwieldy 1934 play, "Merrily We Roll Along", carries over into the musical version. Like the original, George Furth's book moves backward in time over a span of 25 years to show us how success can produce a failure, but the story has been updated, the careers altered, and the cast, with a single exception, is made up of youthful unknowns.
It was Kaufman and Hart's fancy notion to show a playwright at the height of his success during an opening-night party and then to trace his path back over the years to reveal the ideals he discarded along the way, until, at the end, we find him quoting Polonius' "To thine own self be true" during his college graduation ceremony.
It's a high school graduation now with which the evening begins and ends, and our hero, Franklin Shepard (Jim Walton), is an idealistic songwriter and his closest chum is his lyricist (originally a painter), Charley Kringas (Lonny Price). Completing the trio is Mary Flynn (Ann Morrison), a novelist. As the story begins in the present, Frank and Charley have broken up, Frank having sold out to Hollywood while Charley remained behind to become a playwright. Poor Mary has become an alcoholic movie critic. In other words, Frank has become Marvin Hamlisch or somebody, and Charley has become Neil Simon. Mary seems the only loser, if you care to look at it that way. In scenes working their way back from 1980 Bel Air to increasingly modest apartments, night clubs and other places until we are at Lake Forest Academy in 1955 listening to Frank's graduation song, "The Hills of Tomorrow," we always seem to be confronted, in one way or another, with that immortal movie-musical line, "Hey, kids, let's do a show!" As Frank noodles away at an upright, Charley rapidly types (types!) lyrics to the tunes, none of them sounding in the least like Chuck Berry or a chart-buster.
Small wonder, then, that Sondheim's inspiration is at a remarkably low ebb this time out. The title number ironically rolls along between scenes, sometimes there are faint echoes of "Company," and it would be unthinkable for Sondheim not to come up with at least one sound ballad, as in "Good Thing Going (Going Gone)." But the score is for the most part pallid, and even the unfailing cleverness we have come to expect of his rhyme structure is held in check to erupt at times with such questionable constructions as "I'll Get Leontyne Price to sing a/ Number from "Die Meistersinger." But then what on earth could a writer of Sondheim's attainments do with such a book, one in which Furth delivers hotsy-totsy observations on the order of "She's going to hell in a handcart"?
The cast of 27, sometimes addressing the audience directly, includes one veteran (Geoffrey Horne) representing our hero at 43 and blending in with the younger man in the finale. The rest are either in their 20s or teens, and some are quite promising, particularly the ferret-like Price and the chunky Morrison, who delivers a song as straight as an arrow. There is also good work by Jason Alexander as a crass, cigar-chomping Broadway producer who wants "hummable" numbers for his shows, and by the latter's gushingly imperious wife (Terry Finn), who becomes Mrs. Franklin Shepard the Second. Giancarlo Esposito, who was so striking last year in "Zeoman and the Sign," is reduced here to the role of valedictorian, though he and all but the three leads function as the chorus as well as various individuals (I might mention a 28th, a stagehand visible strolling back and forth along a catwalk at times).
The production looks as though it cost all of $28. The players (though, of course, there are costume changes and adornments) mostly wear T-shirts identifying themselves as The Producer, The Secretary, The Lawyer, The Third Mrs. Shepard, and so on. And Eugene Lee's flexible, skeletal stage setting is mainly made up of pipes, ladders, and steps on a revolving central unit.
Harold Prince has directed the book as inventively as possible, and Larry Fuller has choreographed the musical numbers deftly. Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations do what they can for a weak score, starting out with a bang as the overture begins with a loud up-tempo number.
"Merrily We Roll Along" is kid stuff in more than one sense, and a severe letdown for at least one Sondheim admirer.
The word of mouth on the latest Stephen Sondheim musical, Merrily We Roll Along, which opened last night at the Alvin Theater, was so bad that all the words seemed dirty and the mouth was twisted in a permanent sneer.
Unquestionably, the show was beset with troubles, but in my opinion it has equally unquestionably triumphed - at least it should as long as people distinguish between what they are actually seeing on stage and what they heard about the show during previews.
Graham Greene used to define his fiction as either "entertainments" or "novels." Some similar distinction might be helpful in approaching Sondheim.
Not that the ideas behind Sondheim are ever less than challenging, but musically his work seems increasingly to fall into two categories. The first, typified perhaps by Sweeney Todd, where he is consciously trying to extend the range of the popular musical theater, and the second, the most recent examples being Company and Follies, where he is trying to place an individual signature on a basically familiar form.
The idea for the present musical appears to have come to Sondheim's director-producer-collaborator, Harold Prince, and was loosely inspired by a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It traces the careers of three young people from 1955 to 1980. But it traces them backwards - it starts at the end and moves forward to the beginning.
At the end the main characters are proclaiming the very hopes that we saw maimed at the beginning. An oddly downbeat ending, then, in an equally upbeat mood. But irony is very much the name of the game for Sondheim and George Furth, who wrote the eloquently and aptly contrived book.
Three people coping with early success: Franklin, a Broadway composer seeks out for big bucks and emptiness. Mary, a sometime best-selling novelist, slides into alcoholism. Only the playwright and Franklin's collaborator, Charley, remains untainted and keeps his self-respect. Simplistic? Of course - most musicals are, it is almost the nature of the beast, and here there are dangers intrinsically inherent in the flashback structure.
Yet Furth and Sondheim, and of course, Prince, are trying to make a very valid point about our instant celebrity world. After writing Childe Harold, Lord Byron may have woken up to find himself famous, but at least he was spared the flicker, flack and flash of contemporary celebrity.
Probably most composers would have used the time-span to have introduced pastiches of music consonant with the passing years. Sondheim will have none of this. He strictly maintains that rhythmic and acerbic musical profile, so appropriate for the terseness of his dry and wry lyrics, he established in Company and Follies. All three works could have been composed by no one else.
One difficulty the production did not solve to my entire satisfaction was that of the cast and its aging. From beginning to end, through this entire backward gauntlet race of a Silver Jubilee, the age of the cast scarcely varied.
If Prince was to blame for this - and presumably he was - the rest of his work is credit all the way. Aided by the unobtrusively brilliant choreography by Larry Fuller, which always manages to keep out of the way of the actors' feet, Prince keeps the show whirling like confetti in the wind, stopping only for dramatic points and major songs which are punched in with authoritative zest.
The style of the show is also much assisted by Eugene Lee's constructor set setting, Judith Dolan's costumes (I loved the conceit of sweat-shirts emblazoned with the function of the wearer) and the resourceful lighting by David Hershey.
Finally there was the cast - 27 talented young people. Lonny Price as Charley, an incorruptible Woody Allen type, is terrific, he buzzes and soars like a buzz saw. Just as good is Ann Morrison, a talented drunk who is eventually more drunk than talented, who wears her heart on her sleeve for the ambitious songwriter.
A beautifully acrid comic skit is provided by Terry Finn as a producer's wife with even less morals than taste, and a turn of phrase that would cause a viper to bite out its tongue in envy. Jason Alexander makes a strong impression as the easy-going slob of a producer, Joe. Sally Klein is convincingly affronted as the composer's first wife.
In the leading role, Frankling, the composer himself, Jim Walton - who took the role over at comparatively short notice - is not nearly so secure. He never quite convinces that he would be worth the time of Fate to corrupt. Nevertheless he will doubtless work into the role more interestingly later.
Another work from Sondheim, Prince & Co. Whatever you may have heard about it - go and see it for yourselves. It is far too good a musical to be judged by those twin kangaroo courts of word of mouth and critical consensus. It is the story of success, the complexities of compromise, and life lived amid quicksands. It also has that surging Sondheim sound that is New York set to music.
As we all should probably have learned by now, to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one's heart broken at regular intervals. Usually the heartbreak comes from Mr. Sondheim's songs - for his music can tear through us with an emotional force as moving as Gershwin's. And sometimes the pain is compounded by another factor - for some of Mr. Sondheim's most powerful work turns up in shows (''Anyone Can Whistle,'' ''Pacific Overtures'') that fail. Suffice it to say that both kinds of pain are abundant in ''Merrily We Roll Along,'' the new Sondheim-Harold Prince-George Furth musical that opened at the Alvin last night. Mr. Sondheim has given this evening a half-dozen songs that are crushing and beautiful - that soar and linger and hurt. But the show that contains them is a shambles.
''Merrily We Roll Along'' has been adapted by Mr. Furth from the second George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart collaboration, a Broadway curiosity of 1934. While the new version is rewritten and updated, it repeats the defects of the original text - even as it adds more of its own. Now, as before, ''Merrily'' is about three best friends who reach the top of the Broadway-Hollywood showbiz whirl only to discover, in two cases, that their lives are empty, petty and loveless. The gimmick is to tell the story backwards. The central plot begins with the principals at a present-day party, where they're at their lowest, most jaded ebb. We end up at a high-school graduation, where the hero vows to uphold all the pure ideals we've spent the evening watching him betray.
Mr. Furth blunts the shock effect of the original play's structure by enclosing it within a conventional flashback, and, even so, he fails to solve its major dramatic failure. We never do learn why the characters reached the sad state they're in at the outset. While a busy story - often built around unconvincing, melodramatic twists - does tell us how the three friends fell apart, that's not enough.
We keep waiting for some insight into these people - that might make us understand, if not care, about them - but all we get is fatuous attitudinizing about how ambition, success and money always lead to rack and ruin. Like Kaufman and Hart - but unlike Harold Pinter in the similarly designed ''Betrayal'' - Mr. Furth abandons his emotional issues entirely once he moves far back in time. Act II is all anticlimactic plot exposition - an undramatized, breathless recap of the red letter events that first brought the friends to fame.
There's another difficulty as well, for the book's tone often seems as empty as its characters. Mr. Furth's one-line zingers about showbiz, laced with unearned nastiness, are as facile as those he brought to ''The Act'' and ''The Supporting Cast.'' He defines the show's principal female character, an alcoholic writer (Ann Morrison), by giving her labored retreads of the wisecracks he wrote for Elaine Stritch in his book for the Sondheim-Prince ''Company.'' Meanwhile, the emotional basis of the friendship between the two heroes, a composer (Jim Walton) and a lyricist (Lonny Price) - or between them and the heroine - is never established at all. We're just told, repeatedly, that they're lifelong friends.
Perhaps the libretto's most unfortunate aspect, however, is its similarity to James Goldman's far fuller one for the Sondheim-Prince ''Follies.'' That 1971 musical also gave us bitter, middle-aged friends, disappointed in love and success, who reunite at a showbiz party, then steadily move back through time until they become the idealistic kids they once were. Forced to contemplate the esthetic gap that separates these two like-minded shows, we see that not only the characters are rolling backward this time out.
''Follies'' had everything the new version does not - most notably a theatrical metaphor that united all its elements, from its production design and staging and choreography (by Michael Bennett) to its score. It also used the effective trick of assigning each major character to two actors, one middle-aged and one young, so that past and present could interweave at will to potent effect. With one passing exception, the roles in ''Merrily'' are always played by young actors, no matter what the characters' ages or how high the toll in cuteness.
While Mr. Prince often finds brilliant unifying concepts for his shows, even the ones that don't work, he's come up with a flat one here - school. Eugene Lee's set is a high tech jungle jim of bleachers, surrounded by gym lockers, that looks as if it's left over from ''Runaways.'' When it is augmented by skyline projections, it becomes a decimated version of the set from ''Company'' - a parallel that's reinforced by the staging of the party scenes and the dramatic uses of platforms. As has been true of some other recent Prince shows, the choreography, by Larry Fuller, is uninspired to the extent that it exists at all.
Although Mr. Sondheim's lyrics seem less airborne than usual, as do Jonathan Tunick's brassy, Jule Styne-esque orchestrations, the score only occasionally falls to the show's level. There are two songs, ''Rich and Happy'' and ''It's a Hit!,'' that are as glib as the book, and one parody number about the Kennedys (a 60's composition of the heroes) that may be intended as a satirical pastiche of such parodies, but is unfunny in any case.
The other, sublime numbers give the three appealing principal players their only opportunities to reveal their talent. Mr. Price, in the most sympathetic role, is a charming, Woody Allen-esque fellow who brings fire to the show's angriest song (''Franklin Shepard, Inc.'') and a plaintive undersell to its most conventional ballad (''Good Thing Going''). Mr. Walton, likable, if less than charismatic, as an innocent-gone-sour, gives a rush of sweetness to ''Not a Day Goes By,'' a relentless song of unrequited love that matches its equivalent, ''Too Many Mornings,'' in ''Follies.'' Miss Morrison's heroine, attractively plump and sassy, sparks what may be the show's richest song, the trio ''Old Friends.''
With the exception of Sally Klein, as a jettisoned first wife, the rest of the cast is dead wood until the penultimate number, an ironic, idealistic anthem titled ''Our Time.'' At that point, Mr. Sondheim's searing songwriting voice breaks through once more to address, as no one else here does, the show's poignant theme of wasted lives. But what's really being wasted here is Mr. Sondheim's talent. And that's why we watch ''Merrily We Roll Along'' with an ever-mounting - and finally upsetting - sense of regret.