Several Stephen Sondheim musicals — Into the Woods, Company, even the blood-soaked Sweeney Todd — have gradually made their way into the mainstream. Merrily We Roll Along hasn’t been as fortunate. A flop on Broadway in 1981, it was produced to great acclaim in London three years ago but has yet to truly establish itself in the U.S.
The loss is ours. The story of three young idealists and their gradual descent into midlife disappointment is utterly relatable — perhaps uncomfortably so — and deeply moving. It also contains some of Sondheim’s most beautiful and poignant songs.
Area audiences have a rare chance to experience it when the Rubicon Theatre presents a concert version of the show (no sets, no costumes) for three performances only. The cast is led by Broadway veterans Andrew Samonsky, Kate Reinders, Beverly Ward, and Jason Graae.
Loosely based on a 1930s play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, Merrily has an unusual structure: It travels backward in time. The first scene takes place in “the present” (the early ’80s) and finds the three central characters estranged and unhappy, despite superficial signs of success. With each subsequent scene, the action moves back a few years, until we finally view them as young college graduates, vowing that together they will change the world.
Bonnie Hellman, who is directing the Rubicon reading, staged the first Los Angeles production of the show in 1983. She suspects the unusual structure is less of a problem for today’s audiences, who are used to movie and television dramas that play around with time.
She contends the main reason the show failed initially was director Harold Prince’s decision to cast it with kids in their late teens or early 20s (including Dos Pueblos High School theater instructor Clark Sayre). Hellman saw that premiere production and felt the young actors couldn’t really convey the nuances of middle-age angst. That will not be a problem for her highly experienced cast.
Performances are Saturday, October 1, at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday, October 2, at 2 p.m., at Rubicon Theatre (1006 E. Main St., Ventura). Call (805) 667-2900 or see rubicontheatre.org.