Merrily is a famous Broadway failure. Opening in 1981, it ran for just 16 performances. “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,” wrote Frank Rich of the New York Times.
Would that all our failures could be as heartbreakingly good as Sondheim’s.
The story comes from an eamid-1930s Kaufman and Hart play of the same name and reversing-through-time structure. The spotlight is on Franklin (played here by Patrick Howard), a successful composer living the Hollywood highlife much to the chagrin of his longtime musical partner Charlie (Zach Selmes), a lyricist who wants his old pal to focus on weightier subjects get out of the money trap.
From an opening scene set in Franklin’s chic Hollywood pad, Sondheim and writer George Furth step the story back from the cynical, Vietnam War-weary mid 1970s to a more innocent time – back to the roof of a college dorm in 1957 – to reveal the decisions that brought these brothers-in-art to the point where they can barely talk to each other.
Drenched in Sondheim’s sour feelings about making art in a world where only money seems to matter, you can understand why fun-seeking Broadway audiences didn’t take to Merrily. It is very much an insider’s story. But for those who work in the biz and love-hate it, its potshots at producers, sycophants, ladder-climbers and critics are catnip. Much of the music – songs such as Good Thing Going, Our Time and Old Friends – is exceptionally fine. The score is beautifully played by a two-man band (Antonio Fernandez, piano; musical director Conrad Hamill on bass and cello) and the singing is generally strong.
Little Triangle Theatre and director Alexander Andrews are working on a thin shoestring of a budget, which denies early scenes their opulence. As we regress, however, to a world not unlike that of the Depot Theatre where indie companies work for love and whatever thin slice of revenue is left, the show pops into focus.
Howard and Selmes are solid in the lead roles, though Selmes pushes a little too hard at times and Howard could give us more of a sense of Franklin’s inner conflict. Matilda Moran is suitably vampy as the serially married actress Gussie Carnegie, and Victoria Zerbst shines quietly as Mary, a career drunk when we meet her, a wide-eyed college girl instantly in love at the story’s end.