Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along

Merrily We Roll Along – Musical comedy with lyrics by the composer based on a book by George Furth, from the play by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart

Terry – Lucy Bradshaw
Ru/ Talk Show Host – Darren Carnall
Charley Kringas – Daniel Evans
Gussie Carnegie – Anna Francolini
Jerome – Dean Hussain
Bunker / Mr Spencer – David Lucas
Joe Josephson – James Millard
Gwen Wilson – Zehra Naqvi
Younger Franklin Shepherd – Julian Ovenden
Scotty – Stuart Matthew Price
Older Franklin Shepherd – Grant Russell
Mary Flynn – Samantha Spiro
Beth Spencer – Mary Stockley
Meg Kincaid – Emma Jay Thomas
Miss Gordon/ Mrs Spencer – Suzie Toase

The Band: Allan Cox (percussion), Rob Levy (bass), Andy Greenwood & Toby Coles (trumpets), Colin Sheen (trombone), Nick Moss (alto saxophone, flute & clarinet), Tim Holmes (tenor saxophone & clarinet), Colin Skinner (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet & bassoon)

Gareth Valentine – Musical director (piano)
Rob Ashford – Director
David Plater – Lighting designer
Avgoustos Psillas – Sound designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 31 October, 2010
Venue: Queen’s Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1

The Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London’s Covent Garden has over the last eighteen years done well by Sondheim, having staged “Assassins” in 1992, “Company” in 1995, “Into the Woods” in 1998, “Merrily We Roll Along” in 2000, “Pacific Overtures” in 2003 and “Passion” this year to coincide with Sondheim’s eightieth-birthday. Amazingly all the Donmar productions have been successful and more often than not improvements on their original stagings. “Assassins” was the show’s West End premiere, so it set a precedent for future productions. “Company” worked exceptionally well in the Donmar’s small space and even transferred to the larger Albery Theatre in St Martin’s Lane. “Into the Woods” was an intimate but bustling staging that was even more entertaining than the original London production. The chamber version of “Pacific Overtures” proved that you didn’t need the forces of English National Opera in a theatre as vast as the London Coliseum to make it successful. Lately “Passion” has shown that this perhaps least-loved of all Sondheim’s shows still has a chance of success.

“Merrily We Roll Along” received its London West End professional premiere at the Donmar in 2000, although it had been staged by students of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 1983 and by the London Royal Schools’ Vocal Faculty (the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music) in 1997. As it is a show about young people, their aims and ambitions, and their losses and disappointments, it is an ideal show for students to attempt.

Happily (merrily?) the one-off concert-staging at the Queen’s Theatre managed to procure most of the original cast from the Donmar production of 2000. Originally planned for one matinee performance, another was added on the same evening and it received as warm a welcome as it had done ten years previously. It is sad that one of Sondheim’s best shows has never had a very long run. The original Broadway showing was sixty-eight performances, three-quarters of which were previews which had escalated when the leading man and the choreographer were replaced. A production in San Diego ran for twenty-four performances in 1985; it had a three-week run at the Haymarket in Leicester in 1992; an off-Broadway production had fifty-four performances in 1994; the Kennedy Center had it for fourteen nights in 2002, and it played a month in Derby in 2007. In the same year it ran for five weeks in Arlington, Virginia. Possibly its longest run, however, was two years ago at the Watermill in Newbury, Berkshire in a three-month engagement. This year it has played about three weeks in Columbus, Ohio. Two years ago the Roundabout Theatre Company announced a Broadway revival which has yet to surface and, anyway, as a repertory company, its shows generally run for no more than three or four months. The original London production at the Donmar which also stages relatively short runs, played seventy-one performances. So, unless Broadway or London can find a production of “Merrily” to transfer to the West End, it’s unlikely to ever have a long life like that of “Mamma Mia”, “The Phantom of the Opera” or “Cats”. More’s the pity because “Merrily We Roll Along” is a far superior and more imaginative show.

From its beginnings in 1981 “Merrily We Roll Along” was the least merry show to stage. Based on the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, which itself was a flop in its day and has never been revived on Broadway, the musical is not the show of the play but instead takes its inspiration from themes and develops them to music. The original features a playwright and his fall from grace. At age forty he is a successful writer of commercial but frivolous comedies but has his success brought him true happiness as well as a healthy bank balance?. In the musical version Franklin Shepard is a songwriter and film producer. Along the way he drops his best friend, drives a woman writer-friend to drink, cheats on his wife and all in the name of ambition and success. His story is, however, as it was in the original play, told backwards, from the night of the party to celebrate his latest success, progressing retrospectively in time to his student days when he was young and ambitious but a nicer person who says in his college graduation speech, echoing the words of Polonius in “Hamlet”: “This above all, to thine own self be true”, something that thirty years later he patently was not.

Was it the awkward way of telling a story backwards that the first audiences didn’t get in “Merrily” (the musical), or the fact that the leading man is an anti-hero, or that the production used very young, inexperienced kids to play at being old first and then becoming younger over a period of twenty-five years that heralded a short run? Whatever it was the first “Merrily” had its preview public leaving in droves. Subsequent productions have used more seasoned actors and the show has notched up success albeit in only relatively short runs. The Donmar concert version uses the same cast from ten years ago who were not young even then. However, they are certainly still credible in the same roles and it’s difficult to imagine a better company for the show.

Sondheim’s songs are here written like building blocks, with sections that are moved around from song to song and with transitions in order to give the show more cohesion. It is puzzling to think that the original audiences reacted so much against them, as some of the songs have become Sondheim classics such as ‘Old Friends’, ‘Not a Day Goes By’, ‘Good Thing Going’ and ‘Our Time’. And towards the end of the show, as the company regresses to the 1960s, there’s a deliciously witty song about the Kennedys called ‘Bobby and Jacky and Jack’ in which they clam to be “bringing back style to the White House”. This and the others are some of the best work the composer-lyricist has done. They are beautifully modulated pieces packed with emotion, humour and a certain sharpness of tone that lifts “Merrily” out of its own self-styled category of ‘musical comedy’. The music also must surely put an end to the lie that Sondheim cannot write memorable tunes. They carry that all too identifiable, edgy, contemporary sound that is pure Sondheim and nobody else. Gareth Valentine and his band at the Queen’s Theatre pinpointed this quality and reproduced Sondheim’s elegant score with vivacity and panache – a very superior performance indeed, aided by the work of sound designer Avgoustos Psillas. Rob Ashford made the piece work really well even as a concert performance, directing it with pace and discernment.

I am sure Sondheim would not complain about the Donmar casting. Julian Ovenden is fast becoming one of our best musical performers. As the (anti-)hero Franklin Shepard he is just perfect because not only does he have a terrific voice but he is also an actor of great versatility. He catches the terrible coldness of Shepard and his ambitious streak which lets him run roughshod over everybody else’s feelings. As his writing colleague Charley Kringas, Daniel Evans (so good in Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George” at the Menier Chocolate Factory) is the total opposite of Shepard, a nice guy who cares abut other people, especially their mutual friend, the drunken theatre critic Mary Flynn (the original character was based on Dorothy Parker) who was always and remains in love with Shepard. She is played by Samantha Spiro, another great musical performer, and she gets all the best funny lines from George Furth’s knowing book. Good work too from other members of the original 2000 cast, witness Anna Francolini as Shepard’s wife Gussie who is about to be dropped by Franklin for a younger model he has been seeing. James Millard as producer Joe Josephson, Gussie’s first husband, has the ring of truth about him, conveying all too well the ruthlessness of his profession.

“Merrily We Roll Along” begins with a sad ending, a man looking at the hollowness of his life, but by the finale the audiences is given its happy beginning. Sondheim has said that the music, if played back to front, is much like any other traditional musical-comedy score. One wonders if there would be any mileage in turning the show inside-out to see if the whole thing would work just as well or even better without Kaufman and Hart’s original plotting. The retrospective journey, however, gives the show an added edge even though the original choreographer, who left production before opening night, on meeting a fellow choreographer enquiring how the show was going, gave the answer “How good could it be? It’s still backwards.”

The last lines of the song ‘Old Friends’ sums up the both the plot of the show and Sondheim’s work in general: “It’s us, old friend, / What’s to discuss, old friend? / Here’s to us / Who’s like us? / Damn few.” One day “Merrily We Roll Along” will have its day in the sun. It’s only a matter of time.

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