NEW YORK — `MERRILY We Roll Along'' was a quick flop on Broadway in 1981, but since then this Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical has assumed the status of legend. Over the years numerous attempts have been made at reviving it, and now the Off Broadway York Theatre Company, which presented a magnificent chamber-size version of ``Sweeney Todd'' a few seasons back, is trying its hand at resuscitating this difficult piece.
The show has been extensively revised, and the production features three new Sondheim songs. It is cast with performers mainly in their 30s, unlike the original Hal Prince-directed version, which cast youngsters in all the major roles. (This meant that the children played characters who were in their 40s at the beginning of the play and by the end of the show were college age.)
Like the Kaufman and Hart play on which it is based, ``Merrily'' presents its tale in backward chronological fashion. It begins in 1976, as we witness the fractured relationship between its three main characters, and in succeeding scenes illustrates exactly how their dreams and ambitions were thwarted. We see their first meeting and the full flowering of their optimism and idealism in a climactic scene at the end.
The show chronicles the relationship between composer Franklin Shepard (played by Malcom Gets), his best friend and lyricist-collaborator Charley Kringas (Adam Heller), and their pal Mary Flynn (Amy Ryder), who loves Franklin from afar. The two men start out with ambitious plans to write musicals that will change the world, but after initial blazing success, they lose their way.
Franklin becomes embroiled in a nasty divorce from his wife Beth (Anne Bobby) and has an affair with, and eventually marries, the shallow but beautiful actress (Michele Pawk) who stars in their show. He winds up a Hollywood sellout. Charley, who has become increasingly disenchanted with Franklin's attention to everything but the work, goes off on his own, winning the Pulitzer Prize but losing his best friend. In probably the clearest example of dissipation, Mary, who at the beginning of her career is an acclaimed novelist, winds up a drunken drama critic.
The show seems much more successful now than it originally did at making us care about these characters. Their transformation, culminating in their painful-to-witness hopefulness at the end, is powerful and moving. But the backward structure doesn't work now as it didn't work then. It too obviously makes the points that we need to make for ourselves; the ironies and connections between events are hammered home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Since we know how the characters are going to end up we don't care as much about how they got there. It also isn't easy to empathize with the problems of rich and successful artists, no matter how creatively unfulfilled they may be.
What does still work, and what seems even stronger, is Sondheim's glorious score, putting his current amorphous doodlings for ``Passion'' to shame. Anyone who has ever doubted this composer's gift for melody or emotionalism need look no further than ``Old Friends,'' ``Not a Day Goes By,'' or ``Good Thing Going.''
Susan Schulman's direction is necessarily hampered by the low budget and awkward theater space, but she has done careful, considered work that makes the show work probably as well as it possibly can. The cast is generally uneven, but the leading performances are quite skillful: Malcom Gets is particularly powerful playing a character who can be quite unsympathetic, and Adam Heller and Amy Ryder bring a strong comic flair to their roles.
The York's ``Merrily'' will not revise anyone's opinion of the work enough to consider it a neglected masterpiece, but it does provide an excellent opportunity to reappraise its strengths and weaknesses and to hear that marvelous score again.