Songwriter Stephen Sondheim and librettist George Furth's 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along, based on the 1934 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play was, like its predecessor, more of a critical success, at least over time, than a popular one. In fact, with a run of only 16 performances, the musical was an outright flop, the worst commercial failure in Broadway's leading composer's career since Anyone Can Whistle ran nine performances in 1964. The reasons may have been several, the most significant one perhaps being the same backwards structure adopted by the play (each scene takes place earlier in time than the one before it), which intrigued critics but tended to leave audiences confused and disengaged. Other reasons may have included the casting of young unknowns and the low-key staging and costumes, which consisted largely of sweatshirts. Then there was the plot, which concerned an idealistic young playwright (in the play) or composer (in the musical) who becomes jaded during the course of the story, except of course that in this telling he starts out jaded and becomes idealistic. In any case, the reason why the musical was remembered after those 16 performances and revived several times was Sondheim's score, which is one of his best. Writing from personal knowledge and covering the time period of his own career (1955-1980), Sondheim composed some of his most moving love songs ("Not a Day Goes By," "Good Thing Going") and some of his wittiest patter songs ("Franklin Shepard, Inc.," "Bobby and Jackie and Jack") in a collection that held together extraordinarily well. That young cast turned out to have some budding talents including Lonny Price, who went on to a successful career as a stage director and Jason Alexander, who starred on-stage (Jerome Robbins' Broadway) before achieving national television fame on Seinfeld. This is one of those cast albums, like House of Flowers or Anyone Can Whistle, that makes the listener marvel that the stage production could have failed when the music is so wonderful.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann
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