IT’S A HIT!

Since it’s debacle of a debut in November 1981, Merrily We Roll Along was termed a sad flop that closed in just 12 days. However, its recent revival, staged by Maria Friedman, which opened at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre on October 10, 2023, became an unqualified hit. Her production began to make waves with an off-Broadway staging at the New York Theatre Workshop that ran from November 21, 2022, to January 22, 2023, paving the way for its much anticipated Broadway transfer. One of the few shows from the 2023-2024 Broadway season to become profitable, Merrily recouped its $12 million capitalization expense in March. Its remarkably talented cast — pictured above: Daniel Radcliffe (whose fame from the Harry Potter movies was an added attraction), Jonathan Groff and Lindsay Mendez — had a tangible chemistry. Groff and Radcliffe won Tonys for their performances (Mendez was nominated), and the production won the 2024 Tony for Best Musical Revival. Radical Media, the company that also filmed the original cast of Hamilton for Disney+ and Come from Away for AppleTV+ filmed Merrily in late June, just before the production’s closing on July 7. Following the show’s Tony haul, many performances were stopped during when it was time for the song “It’s a Hit” with spontaneous ovations by the audiences. All of this led to tons of media coverage, of course. One of the most enjoyable and interesting was a New Yorker profile, “Jonathan Groff Rolls Merrily Back.”

Sondheim’s most notorious flop has become one of his biggest hits. The weekly gross for Merrily during final week of June reached $2,321,807, a new record for for any Sondheim show. In the first week of July, prior to the July 7 closing, tickets were selling for $5,000!

SOLD TO THE HIGHEST BIDDER … !

Another big event for Sondheim fans this spring was a landmark auction in New York City of the “Collection of Stephen Sondheim” by the Doyle auction house on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Fans and collectors from around the world snapped up all 454 lots offered, featuring memorabilia, furnishings, antique puzzles and books from Sondheim’s Manhattan townhouse and his country home in Roxbury, Connecticut. The highest item of the day, sold for $70,350, was a Fabergé enameled silver-gilt and wood covered box (image above left, it’s actually 2 inches high, 4 3/4 inches wide, 7 3/4 inches long) in the form of a billiards table designed by Karl Armfelt in St. Petersburg, Russia, around 1908-17. (It had been estimated to sell for $12,000-$18,000.) Sondheim’s Gold Record for the 1957 cast recording of West Side Story went for $28,800, and his second Gold record for the soundtrack of West Side Story’s 1961 film adaptation went for the high bid of $44,800. A stack of his personal stationery and a signed spiral notebook sold for $15,360, and three boxes of his personal favorite Blackwing pencils went for $6,400! Sondheim’s first royalty check in 1948 (78¢ from BMI for three songs from his Williams College revue, Phinney’s Rainbow) went to a bidder for $20,480. In total, the auction’s sales were $1.5 million, much more than had been projected.

BEGGAR WOMAN NEWS …

Ruthie Ann Miles played Sweeney Todd’s Beggar Woman for 17 months in the recent revival starring Josh Groban, which closed on May 5. She received a Tony nomination for her featured role. Post-closing she moved straight into another Sondheim show, the concert production of A Little Night Music, June 27-29, at Lincoln Center, playing the acerbic Countess Charlotte. In 2017 Miles appeared in the 2017 revival of Sunday in the Park With George. (She won a 2015 Tony for her featured performance as Lady Thiang in The King and I, also at Lincoln Center.) Miles told an interviewer that she loves Sondheim’s “wordsmithery,” not to mention that he “thoroughly investigates the complexity and struggle between the human mind and heart.” Asked which Sondheim character she’d most like to play, her answer was, “Is it cheating if I say, ‘All of them?’” After months of hunching around the Lunt-Fontanne stage as the Beggar Woman, she was excited “to stand up straight and stand proudly in Charlotte’s power. … My physical therapists and I are very happy,” she added. … Audra McDonald, who has portrayed the Beggar Woman in several Sweeney concert stagings, has announced she’ll play Rose in an upcoming Broadway revival of Gypsy, set to start previews in November.

TUNICK TUNES UP A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC

The Lincoln Center June concert version of A Little Night Music was conducted by Sondheim’s longtime orchestrator Jonathan Tunick (above, left, with Sondheim in 2012). Working from Sondheim’s original directive for the score — he wanted it to sound like “wafting perfume” — Tunick decided that a reorchestration was in order, using the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with 53 musicians. Night Music’s original Broadway pit orchestra had 15 musicians. For the June concert, Tunick had 30 strings players to work with. Writing for Playbill, Logan Culwell-Block suggested, “Think of what you can do with a box of eight crayons versus a box of 64. Both drawings might be of the same thing — they might even be strikingly similar — but the latter gives you opportunity to refine and add detail that’s just not possible with the smaller set.” Here’s a link to the in-depth Playbill feature.

PAUL SALSINI, R.I.P.

Paul Salsini, the Milwaukee journalist who founded The Sondheim Review, passed away on June 5, 2024, at the age of 88. I was an early subscriber to TSR. In 1997, when the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park produced Sweeney Todd, I offered to review it. Paul responded enthusiastically — and subsequently encouraged me to provide more features and reviews. In 2002, he invited me to become an associate editor, and in 2004 when Paul stepped back from editing the quarterly magazine, I became its managing editor until it ceased publication in 2016. I’m grateful to him for “opening doors” that enabled me to do more exploration of Sondheim’s shows.

Paul was an award-winning author, and a reporter, editor and staff development director at the Milwaukee Journal before it merged with the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1995. He also taught journalism at Marquette University. In 2022, he published Sondheim and Me: Revealing a Musical Genius, a collection of his correspondence with Sondheim during his decade of editing TSR. In retirement, Paul published several books about his favorite place, Tuscany, Italy, where his parents’ families were from.

Yakking about Sondheim

I was pleased to learn that the Broadway Podcast Network recently offered an encore episode of David Armstrong’s “Broadway Nation” from 2021. Back then David and I spent 42 minutes talking about The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia that was published in April of that year. Here’s a link. Also a reminder: a year ago the Encyclopedia became available in a more affordable paperback edition. If you don’t yet have a copy, here’s a link to order one. And be sure to use coupon code RLFANDF30 for a 30 percent discount.

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