art by beverly

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Michael Arden, man of the moment in L.A. theater, stages a revival of a famously ‘troubled’ musical

“I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Director Michael Arden is addressing his cast and crew, assembled in a large circle on the first day of rehearsals for “Merrily We Roll Along” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

For the next five weeks, these people will gather in the confines of a black-box theater for eight hours a day, six days a week in preparation for their opening Wednesday.

Arden does, in fact, know what he’s doing. He’s been thinking about “Merrily” for a long time. In high school, he played the small role of the club pianist and understudied the show’s lead character, Franklin Shepard. Now, nearly 20 years later, Arden is staging a revival of the famously “troubled” Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, which opened on Broadway in 1981 and closed after only 16 regular performances and 44 previews.

Many, including the critics, found the show’s structure confusing. “Merrily” revolves around three friends — Franklin, Mary and Charley — beginning in 1976 as jaded adults and playing backward to 1957 when they were just starting out, full of hope and optimism.

“I think it was ahead of its time,” Arden says. “People absorbed information through entertainment in a different way than they do now. We soak up information in a way that is not as straightforward and linear as it once was.”

Interest in the musical has never waned. It’s been staged around the world, and its songs, including “Not a Day Goes By” and “Old Friends,” are regularly performed in cabarets and concerts. A new documentary, “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” directed by original Broadway cast member Lonny Price, premiered at the New York Film Festival in October and hit theaters Nov. 18.

For Arden, it was the music — for which Sondheim received a Tony nomination — and the musical’s message that drew him back to the show.

“I fell in love with it,” he says. “What it has to say about how and why we sacrifice our ideals to achieve our dreams is really important and something worth examining for audiences now.”

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