“Life can only be understood backwards; but must be lived forwards.” (Kierkegaard) This philosophy is given theatrical realisation in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along.
Composer Franklin Shepard, played by Mark Umbers, faces the unhappy consequences of finding commercial success and all that comes with it, whilst his lyricist and friend Charley Kringas, played by Damian Humbley, clings to their once shared ideology with increasing futility.
Sondheim & Furth and Kauffman & Hart (the authors of the play on which the musical is based) exceed conventional chronological storytelling: Merrily begins with its explosive denouement and unfolds in reverse order, ending where the story began, with three young friends excitably forging dreams (dreams that the audience already know will not materialise in the way the characters intend them to). This device specifically emphasises the reasons why the events unfold, allowing the audience to witness not just action, but consequence. The effect, if not the instant catharsis you might expect from a musical, is that of deep, lasting contemplation. However, being what it is and functioning as it does, Merrily relies upon stylised transitions to join and situate each episode. The unavoidably fragmentary structure interrupts the action, but not enough to significantly lessen the overall impact.
In an impressive directorial debut, the production’s success can be accredited at large to Maria Friedman’s attention to detail
Sondheim, writing what he knows, has faced pressure throughout his career to compose ‘hummumummable” melodies. But, never faltering, this score is characteristically sophisticated and gelled by tantalisingly sweet, fleeting moments in the form of Not A Day Goes By and Growing Up. Merrily was a notorious flop on Broadway, surviving only 16 performances, but this production, undoing any doubts, gives the most intellectually and emotionally satisfying rendering the work has received to date. In an impressive directorial debut, the production’s success can be accredited at large to Maria Friedman’s attention to detail. Rich with meaning and spontaneity, the text alone fills the stage with life, thus eradicating the need for unnecessary movement. This is particularly noticeable in the potentially hectic numbers Franklin Shepard, Inc. and Old Friends.
There are songs, there is script, but never do you feel a bump in the segue from one to the other. The cast are exceptional, particularly Jenna Russell, as the passionate, funny, lonely Mary Flynn. Demonstrating the fine art of story telling, Russell launches a world of feeling into every witty remark and cynicism, each sideways glance and every sigh. Consequently, the sad musical, replete with home truths, is also rip roaringly funny, causing the audience to laugh until they cry and shake their heads at the bleak, unchangeable reality of it all.
Despite shifting to the larger Harold Pinter Theatre, the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Merrily remains nuanced and intricate, perhaps more so. But this production could transfer to the moon and still be as effecting and beautiful – it steers away from anything unnecessary or lavish and never undermines the premise of the piece itself… “Knowing when to get off.”
***** (5 stars)
Runs until 27th July