Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory
In the directing debut of Maria Friedman, Sondheim's onetime Broadway flop soars anew
On Broadway, Merrily We Roll Along remains forever scarred as the Stephen Sondheim musical that ground to an abrupt halt, closing after two weeks in 1981. But New York's theatrical failures often exist to be discovered anew across the Atlantic, and so it has long proven with a show whose last London incarnation (at the Donmar in 2000) led to a best musical Olivier Award and that lives again at the Menier Chocolate Factory thanks to a first-time director in long-time Sondheim leading lady Maria Friedman, alongside three of the savviest, sharpest, most resonantly moving performances in town.
Marking her professional directing debut with a piece about rewinding the years, Friedman has chosen a musical that tallies with her own past. Amazingly, it's some two decades ago since I travelled to the Leicester Haymarket to see this actress/singer play the gradually embittered, ever-lovesick Mary Flynn in the first professional UK airing of a musical that Friedman returned to as director several years back, this time with Central School students. And here she is once again approaching material with an empathy and rigour that suggest a revision to the old adage about writing what you know. On the directing front, at least when it comes to Merrily, it's no bad thing to know this tricky yet potentially devastating piece inside out.
For starters, there's the issue of which Merrily you decide to do, Sondheim's collaboration with the late George Furth (the composer's colleague previously on Company) having by this point accrued as many versions of itself as Hamlet. Gone is the high-school framing device (not to mention an opening song, "Rich and Happy") preferred by Michael Grandage, who led Merrily to London glory a dozen years ago. Book-ending Friedman's approach is the solitary image of Mark Umbers' searchingly played Franklin Shepard (pictured above, with Jenna Russell as Mary) in unspoken crisis. The question emanating from this superb actor's anguished eyes is taken up by Sondheim's lyric ("how did you get there from here?") and embedded in a piece that travels back 23 years to a once-hopeful past: what use all the world's lucre if in the process you waylay your soul?
One abiding fascination with Merrily pertains directly to its creators, men at the time of the show's inception riding wave upon wave of success, putting their talents to work on material that wonders aloud as to the price of glory? And, of course, even within a show whose title is as crushingly ironic as this one, there's an added irony to our knowledge that its much-lamented premiere put a halt to just the sort of ongoing collaboration featured within the piece itself: since Merrily, Sondheim and his mightiest of directorial collaborators, Harold Prince, have worked together only once.
The Franklin we see at the start - a beginning, given this show's structure, that is also its ending - is an in-demand Hollywood player with both the industry and all womankind at his feet. Gone missing along the way are his thrusting musical theatre aspirations, his family (he scarcely sees his son), and the bonds of friendship that were forged on the Sputnik-era New York rooftop where the narrative eventually lands, the shimmering buoyancy of the show's closing number, "Our Time", amplified by our awareness of the betrayals, heartache, and more that would afflict these innocents inhabiting that too-brief Elysium before life's abrasions come to call. (That rude awakening is itself a Sondheim constant, and one could imagine all three of this show's principals - pictured above - revisiting it someday in the same composer's Follies.)
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