Author: Weinert-Kendt, Rob
Date published: July 1, 2012
Journal code: SOND
The rueful ballad "Like It Was" from Merrily We Roll Along seems at first to offer a dose of unfiltered nostalgia for the old days. "I liked it the way that it was," Mary sings, but in its final stanza the wistfulness wilts as Mary admits that we all idealize the past, wishing for a better time that actually "never ever was ... ."
In the New York City Center concert series Encores!, the point is to do it just like it was - to present historic Broadway musical scores, quirks and all, often with some book surgery by in-house script doctor David Ives and cast with first-rate musical theatre talent who do their best with just eight days of rehearsal and a limited run.
"We're not here to fix the show. We're here to show you what it was," says Rob Berman, who has served as the music director of Encores! since 2007, when he took over from Paul Gemignani. "It's a time machine, as our artistic director Jack Viertel puts it."
Since it began in 1994, the main mission of Encores! has been to present seldom-revived and/or unlikely-to-be-revived properties (Lost in the Stars; Applause; 70, Girls, 70; Where's Charley?), though over the years its simple, score-first approach has occasionally showcased the eminent revivability of such shows as Chicago (still running on Broadway), The Pajama Game and Finian's Rainbow.
Sondheim shows have been part of the Encores! mix, including a 2007 revival of Follies that starred Donna Murphy as Phyllis and Victor Garber as Ben and a 2010 staging of Anyone Can Whistle with Murphy alongside Raúl Esparza and Sutton Foster. Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (The Drowsy Chaperone, The Book of Mormon) helmed both productions, and Berman had high praise for his work, particularly on Whistle, a famous 1964 flop that has earned a devoted cult following but is scarcely produced and which pleasantly surprised audiences and critics.
"Casey was such a great choice for Whistle," Berman says. "He just kept the thing bopping along so you didn't have time to wonder what it was about. Jack and I joked that everyone came out of that one saying, 'Man, that's a weird show, but I had a great time.'" Ironically, the February 2012 revival of Merrily We Roll Along was an exception to the originalist mandate of Encores!, partly because Sondheim and George Furth, and later James Lapine, had retooled the show so extensively in the years after the show's disastrous Broadway debut in 1981, and also because Lapine and Sondheim were on hand to shepherd the Encores! revival.
"Yes, there are people who say, 'Why aren't you going to do the original Broadway score? Isn't that what Encores! is supposed to do?' Encores! isn't supposed to do it any one way," says Berman. "In this case, I think the revisions made the show better, and we have living authors who can have an opportunity to keep working on it. So Jack and I said, 'Let's do this one differently.'"
Still, the rigid Encores! rehearsal schedule - three days for principals, five days for the entire company, then a sitzprobe and technical rehearsals - didn't allow for, say, Sondheim to introduce a new song (other than ones he's added for previous revivals, such as "That Frank" and "Growing Up"). Berman mentioned one lacuna that director Lapine and choreographer Dan Knechtges hoped to address in rehearsals: "They want to flesh out Gussie's number at the beginning of Act II. They never felt it landed before."
Another major contributor to the Sondheim oeuvre is also very much alive and happy to take another swing at bat: orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. This Merrily concert revival gave him the chance not only to consolidate many revisions into one master score but also to do so with a lusher palette.
"We're doing it with a 23-piece orchestra, which is bigger than the original," Berman noted. "In 1981, the orchestra was 20, which at the time was small; these days, unfortunately, that's a large band. Jonathan has done so many different versions of this show over the years that he's learned what works best, and here's a master artist who thinks, 'I can make this the best it's ever been.' He's so accustomed to redoing his work for smaller and smaller orchestras, that to get to expand something - he's really on cloud nine."
In this case, Merrily's Mary may have had it wrong: Sometimes now can improve on then.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT is an associate editor of American Theatre. He also writes about theatre for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Time Out New York. He lives in Brooklyn and is a composer in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. He has been a TSR contributor since 2009.