‘Merrily’ gets a makeover

Maybe “Merrily We Roll Along” didn’t work that well 30 years ago on Broadway, but Kevin McGuire is c

Maybe “Merrily We Roll Along” didn’t work that well 30 years ago on Broadway, but Kevin McGuire is convinced that in 2011 in Cambridge’s Hubbard Hall, Stephen Sondheim’s backward musical tale is sure to be a hit.

A Hoosick Falls native and the man who founded the Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall in 1999, McGuire is back directing in upstate New York after spending much of the past two years working in New York City and Ohio.

Told in reverse

“Merrily We Roll Along,” a Sondheim-Hal Prince collaboration, is the story of Franklin Shepard, at one time a successful composer of Broadway musicals who went on to become a producer of Hollywood movies. Starting in 1976, the tale is told backward, ending in 1957 when Shepard and two close friends, Charley and Mary, were all making plans to take Broadway by storm.

“It was Hal Prince’s idea to tell the story that way, and in 1980 Sondheim wrote what was a traditional musical,” said McGuire. “I think people thought it was a little old-fashioned, but they’ve fixed a lot of the problems. I think the audience might be a little confused at first because the first time you hear a song, it’s actually a reprise of that song. But they figure it out, and according to Sondheim, he felt like it was one of his favorite shows.”

‘Merrily We Roll Along’

WHERE: Hubbard Hall, 25 E. Main St., Cambridge

WHEN: 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m., Sunday; through June 4 (final performance will be at 2 p.m.)

HOW MUCH: $25-$15

MORE INFO: 677-2495 or www.hubbardhall.org

“Merrily We Roll Along” opened on Broadway in 1981 and closed after 52 previews and only 16 performances. The musical’s book, based on the 1934 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play of the same name, was written by George Furth. Some audience members walked out halfway through the show, and it was almost universally panned by critics.

The New York Times’ Frank Rich wrote, “As we all should probably have learned by now, to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one’s heart broken at regular intervals.” But his colleague at the paper, Clive Barnes, wrote, “Whatever you may have heard about it, go and see it for yourselves. It is far too good a musical to be judged by those twin kangaroo courts of word of mouth and critical consensus.”

New version makes sense

“I’m fascinated by the history of this show, and how it’s been changed and developed over the years,” said McGuire. “I think that originally they made some mistakes. It was overproduced, and the look of the show was not good. But I think this version works well. It makes good sense.”

Related story

For Gazette theater writer Matthew G. Moross’ review of this show, click here.

In 1991, 11 years after it opened on Broadway, “Merrily We Roll Along” was produced in London’s West End and won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Musical. In the Hubbard Hall production, Queensbury native Josh Gray is up from New York City to play Franklin, while New York’s Frankie Kraft and Megan Ward play Charley and Mary, respectively.

“That’s the version we’re doing, and no one else around here as far as I can tell has done this version,” said McGuire. “Yeah, the old version may have been a flop in 1980, but in London in 1991 it won an Olivier Award. This revised show is a very good musical, and we have some very talented people performing in it.”

He should certainly recognize talent when he sees it. Along with his extensive directing resume, he has been a busy actor/singer for three decades. He was involved in the Broadway production of “Les Miserables” for 10 years, serving as understudy in the lead role of Jean Valjean and playing the characters of Thenardier and the Bishop of Digne. He was also the title character in the Toronto production of “The Phantom of the Opera,” before returning to upstate New York to create his own theater company in Cambridge. He served as Hubbard Hall’s artistic director for 10 years before leaving in 2009 to once again see what his performance skills might produce for him on a bigger stage.

“I’ve been very busy workshopping a new Broadway-bound musical, ‘Treasure Island,’ and when I’m done here I’m going back to Ohio to play Edna Turnblad in ‘Hairspray,’ ” said McGuire, whose singing voice has also allowed him to put together a busy concert schedule. “I’m doing a lot, and I’m having a lot of fun, so things have been very good.”

Turnblad is the character made famous on the Broadway stage by Harvey Fierstein and in the 2008 movie by John Travolta. She is the shy and overweight mother of the lead character Tracy Turnblad, quite a departure from McGuire’s earlier roles. While he’s looking forward to that experience, the prospect of returning to Broadway in “Treasure Island,” a musical based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, is even more exciting. McGuire is slated to play the character of Squire John Trelawny.

“I’ve been part of the workshop right from the beginning, and they’re raising money now hoping to put it on Broadway,” said McGuire. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but I really feel like this show has a chance. The music is very good, and it’s got a great creative cast working on it. Evidently, there is life for me after Hubbard Hall.”

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]

Categories: Life and Arts

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