Stephen Sondheim has never given himself an easy life when it comes to writing musicals. It goes without saying that anybody trying to stage any musical has probably had a tough time, even, say, Rodgers & Hammerstein who made their shows so successful that they ran and (in revivals) are still running for years on end, such as Oklahoma! and Carousel. However, even they had their flops, Allegro being a prime example. For that show they stepped out of their comfort zone by trying a contemporary morality theme about an ordinary man in a show with a Greek chorus, no sets except projections and props, and it understandably flopped.
After the successes of West Side Story, Gypsy and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (all of which were initially difficult to stage), Sondheim had a major flop with Anyone Can Whistle as it closed after nine performances, a moderate success with Do I Hear a Waltz? (220 performances) while Company fared better with over 700 presentations. However, Follies, which ran for over 500, lost all its money. Whereas A Little Night Music played over 600 times, Pacific Overtures did less than 200. Even Sweeney Todd (Sondheim’s true masterpiece) garnered under 600 appearances, while Sunday in the Park With George notched up more than that number.
Into the Woods was an improvement with over 750 performances but Assassins was down to just 73 in an off-Broadway production that was, however, a sell-out from the first preview. In London the Donmar Warehouse beat New York with 76 performances. Passion ran a total of 280 performances. Sondheim’s most-recent show, Wise Guys, had a protracted birth and was renamed twice as Bounce and finally Road Show. What is good about the short runs and difficulties in staging some is that most of the shows had further productions and revivals in the US, in the UK and around the World. And it didn’t stop many of them winning major awards and some being made into films, the best being Into the Woods.
And so we come to Merrily We Roll Along which in 1981, following fifty-two previews, survived a mere sixteen showings, which is not the worst record for a Sondheim show. There again that’s not a Broadway record either, for at least one musical, Bob Merrill’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s closed after four previews, so never officially opened. Two years earlier he’d had a success with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. Alan Jay Lerner’s Dance a Little Closer ended its run of previews by closing on opening night.
Never one to shirk responsibility when it comes to choosing a subject for a musical, with Merrily... Sondheim seems to have gone out of his way to make life for himself, his writer George Furth and his producer Harold Prince, as arduous as possible. He admitted that the score of Merrily... was one of the most difficult he has had to write (the other was A Funny Thing...). The basis of the show is taken from a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart which was a critical success but a commercial flop, not least because it had a cast of fifty-five. Perhaps at the time it was not easy to expect an audience to appreciate a plot that starts in 1934 and reverses back to 1916. And at the time it was probably too downbeat for a population still getting over the Great Depression of the late-1920s.
Sondheim and Furth gave the piece a new time frame by setting it in 1976 and moving back to 1957. It concerns one Franklin Shepard, a songwriter and film producer (originally a playwright) who is a budding success but with fame comes despair as he begins to drop his closest friends, cheat on both his wives, and drives a woman writer friend to drink (a role allegedly based on Dorothy Parker). Opening with a party to celebrate his latest film, the action proceeds backwards to the days when he was poor but happy, when he and his friends were enjoying planning the future artistic life they were building for themselves. Ending in his giving his college graduation speech, he is seen as a person of great promise and still a human being and not the monster he eventually became.
Whether it was because the alleged ‘hero’ of the piece was objectionable and not easy to identify with, or because the action moved in reverse, or because it was difficult to sort out who exactly was who among the cluttered sets and confusing costumes, the original production was exceedingly troubled. In an effort to make life easier, Prince ditched the costumes and replaced them with T-shirts with the characters’ names on them.
The show did eventually succeed because it was revised and re-staged at La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego in 1985, in Washington DC in 1990, off-Broadway in 1994 and 2019, London in 2000 and 2013, and New York again in 2002 and 2012, as well as elsewhere in the US.
However, the UK premiere was in 1983 by the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, directed by Ian Judge at the nearby Golden Lane Theatre in the Barbican. I couldn’t imagine what all the fuss had been about. It seemed to be a perfect distillation of Sondheim as his most profound. Later productions were seen in Manchester, Leicester, Derby and the Donmar Warehouse (winning Olivier Awards) and the Queen’s Theatre in London, the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark, from where it transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End, where it won more awards. It has played Sydney, Ontario and Kuala Lumpur, proof that you cannot keep a Sondheim show down for long.
Of course it is the enduring spirit of Sondheim’s music and lyrics that feeds success. Sondheim produced a score that is edgy, uncomfortable, anachronistic perhaps, but one that grabs an audience by the scruff of its neck. A first-time listener may not find the score particularly tuneful but further hearings soon bring Sondheim’s melodies to the fore, as he does in Sweeney Todd. You really cannot ignore the emotional power of, say, ‘Like It Was’ (“Hey, old friend / What do you say, old friend?”) or ‘Not a Day Goes By’ (“Not a single day / But you’re part of my life / And it looks like you’ll stay”) which turns out to be not true as Shepard alienates everybody around him.
There is comic relief, however, in numbers such as ‘It’s a Hit!’ and ‘Bobbie and Jackie and Jack’ (“And myriads more in the back”) which satirises the Kennedy generation and the far-reaching extent of the USA’s First Family. ‘Good Thing Going’ expresses where Frank and Charley went wrong (“We had a good thing going / Going / Gone”), while ‘Opening Doors’ sets out their early plans looking forward to promising careers despite all the setbacks. The title song is also full of hope as they roll along, thinking about tomorrow and trying never to look back (“Yesterday is gone / See the pretty countryside / Merrily we roll along / Bursting with dreams”).
Now, Guildhall School is revisiting the show. Today Merrily... doesn’t seem so revolutionary, perhaps because we have become used to Sondheim’s regular branching out on a limb. Originally it was intended to be played by young actors starting out as old and regressing back to their youth, a popular choice for drama schools. The Royal Academy of Music staged it and brought George Furth over to coach. Martin Connor has gathered a good and large cast for the GSMD production and for the most part his staging is strong, both moving and funny even if at times the pace tends to flag.
The three leads, songwriter/film producer Franklin Shepard played by Oli Higginson, playwright Charley Kringas taken by Joseph Potter, and theatre critic Mary Flynn portrayed by Julia Randall all come across as believable characters and they do manage to appear both old and then young. They are supported by a very enthusiastic company – twenty-nine in all – that brings the piece back to glorious life. The student orchestra under Steven Edis tackles the music brilliantly well, demonstrating that it could only be by Sondheim. Adam Wiltshire’s vintage designs of costumes and sets place the piece firmly in its own nostalgic time zone.
If it lacks the expectations of the Guildhall School’s staging the first time around, it is only because in the intervening years we have come to know Merrily... better and cherish it as one of Sondheim’s finest achievements. Productions such as this one will only confirm its rightful place alongside the all-time greats of the American musical genre.
- Until July 10