"Merrily We Roll Along" closes at the La Jolla Playhouse today with an extra matinee--which won't take care of all the people who couldn't even obtain standing-room tickets during its regular four-week run. In fact, this revised version of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's musical has done so well that that there's talk of bringing it to Broadway, where the original managed only 16 performances in 1981.

This talk may be premature. Not having seen "Merrily" in its first incarnation, this reviewer can't compare the original to the La Jolla version. La Jolla's is said to be lighter and less cynical, in each case to the advantage of the story. One wonders about that.

Certainly you don't walk out of this "Merrily" in the vile mood that seems to have been generated by Harold Prince's original production. But you do leave feeling a bit let-down, as if the show had failed, finally, to clinch its case.

Something's missing in "Merrily II." It is not skill of presentation. The piece has the snap of a Broadway show, with a cast that one might well see on Broadway. (Chip Zien is particularly fine as a nebbishy lyricist-playwright who doesn't let 20 years of success smooth him over.) Director James Lapine might have made more expressive use of stage movement, but the evening rolls along.

It rolls backward, however--which brings up a problem that has dogged "Merrily We Roll Along" ever since Kaufman and Hart wrote it as a straight play in 1934. (It ran for about half a season.) To wit: How to interest an audience in a story when you have already shown them how it comes out?

"Merrily II" begins with a fatuous Hollywood party in 1979 and ends with three just-out-of-college kids watching Sputnik flash overhead in 1957--a symbol of the way their artistic careers are about to take off. As in another reverse-action play, Pinter's "Betrayal," the characters go from disillusion to innocence, a process all the more poignant for our knowledge that real life offers no rewind button.

What is particularly effective in "Merrily" is the sense that the three major characters--John Rubinstein's composer, Zien's lyricist, Heather MacRae's writer--are growing clearer as well as nicer, as they go back in time. Not only do we like them better, we see them more clearly as they re-enter the integrity of childhood.

Moving backward, we also pick up some useful dirt on the characters that we clearly aren't supposed to like. For instance, we learn that Gussie, the killer hostess, started out back in the '50s, not as Joe the producer's wife but as his secretary. We do see a wife back there, though. It probably took Gussie about eight months to displace her. (Mary Gordon Murray is Gussie, Merwin Goldsmith is Joe.)

"Merrily II" does progress, then, in the sense of bringing us closer to its characters. If it doesn't generate the usual suspense about what they are going to do next, it does offer the chance to see how they got to be who they are. (Sondheim's songs work the same way, "reprising" material before we hear it in its full form.) It's a perfectly satisfactory way for a theater piece to unfold.

But do we really care about its characters? Do we find them vivid, interesting, full of life? I found them rather on the wimpish side, and their confrontations a bit blunted. There's even a sense that "Merrily II" has been watered down dramatically in response to the accusation that "Merrily I" was too harsh, too much of a downer.

Take that scene at the Hollywood party. It originally showed a group of Industry phonies buttering up the composer on his latest junk musical, while knifing him behind his back. It may have been a disagreeable number--you can hear it on the original cast album--but it did make the point that the "success" for which the composer had betrayed his musical talent was a kind of hell.

In Sondheim's rewrite for La Jolla, the composer's Hollywood friends come off as pretentious and silly, but they don't come off as vipers. They actually seem to have enjoyed his movie ("great trash")--even to enjoy his company. Nor does the composer seem all that tortured by his success as a Hollywood producer, although he's got a real problem with Gussie, now his wife. All in all, though, it doesn't seem that desperate a life. If this is hell, shouldn't he be more conscious of being in it?

Considering how much more pleasure Arthur Freed gave the world through the musicals he produced for MGM than through his songs, this reviewer even wondered if our composer hadn't made exactly the right artistic decision. Especially after hearing his songs.

True, he and young partner talk about "changing the world" with their songs, before being compromised by the Establishment. But when we hear one of their numbers from those feisty days--"Bobby and Jackie and Jack"--it turns out to be about as mild as Vaughn Meader's "First Family" album.

Sondheim almost seems to be suggesting that these boys wouldn't have broken any windows even if you gave them the rocks. At the same time, Furth's book signals that a major betrayal of talent is about to take place. We're not sure whom to believe.

Another disparity comes in the scene where the composer and his lyricist break up their partnership in the middle of a network TV interview. This is treated as a major trauma, but it comes off as the kind of mild snit that professional partners probably have once or twice a year. Again, one hears the alarm without feeling, in the gut, that there's a fire.

The scene where the composer won't acknowledge his former partner in a restaurant is much stronger. Here one does feel the animosity that only ex-friends can generate.

But for me the most telling moment in the show comes when the partners play their new ballad, "Good Thing Going," at a party of "movers and shapers" engineered by the indefatigable Gussie.

Everybody absolutely adores the song, and Gussie demands that they play it again. They unwisely do, and after a few bars, everybody in the room drifts away from the piano and goes back to making party talk.

There's the truly shocking revelation that comes to people after they graduate from college--not that friendship fades, which is known to every child whose best friend ever moved to Cleveland; but that the busy world has such a limited amount of interest in you and your talent.

Every promising newcomer has had the shock of being put in his place, often by a remark that the speaker didn't mean unkindly. The experience would seem to be the stuff of a short story--too deficient in external drama to work on the stage, and certainly not in a musical. Here, as he's done so often before, Sondheim shows us that a good theater number can be a short story.

It's odd, though, that almost all his shows have book problems: One would think that a craftsman so finicky would start writing his own. Here, the problems that "Merrily" had on Broadway have been dealt with, but at the cost of bringing in new problems. The darkness that bothered people about the original version is gone, and so is the edge.

In removing certain devices from Prince's Broadway version--the framing scenes at a graduation ceremony, the gimmick of having all the parts played by genuinely young people--the new version is cleaner; but it's also a step closer to betraying the smallness of the characters and the banality of the situation.

Nobody would call the new "Merrily" nasty--but what would you call it? It might be prudent to take it back to the drawing board--and maybe another workshop--before asking Broadway to listen to it again.

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