The original 1981 production of the Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along famously flopped on Broadway, closing after just sixteen performances. This revival, produced by the Menier Chocolate Factory, and now enjoying a run on the West End at the Harold Pinter Theatre, gives the musical its dues.
Contrary to its light-hearted sounding title, Merrily We Roll Along is actually cynical and heart breaking. It is the story of three old friends: Mary, Frank and Charlie. They are creative types: Frank and Charlie are the composer and lyricist, respectively, of a song-writing duo and their friend Mary is a writer.
The play’s principle conceit is its backwards chronology: it begins in 1976, when the trio’s friendship is in tatters and they are cynical and jaded. The story then travels backwards, finishing at their first meeting in 1957, when they are still full of youthful optimism. The play charts the trajectories of their careers and friendship, and examines the betrayals and compromises that come with fulfilling our ambitions.
The entire cast is pitch perfect, every character clearly defined. I loved each member of the central trio. Jenna Russell is very, very funny as Mary, a cynic with an acerbic tongue even in her youth, who conceals an unrequited love for Franklin. Damian Humbley plays the lyricist Charlie, who is less flashy than Frank, moral and true. Mark Umbers is somehow likable as the composer Franklin Shepherd, despite the fact that we are to understand that he has betrayed his youthful ideals for commercial success. Umbers performance made his choices seem human and understandable.
Of course, the show’s main selling point is its gorgeous music, which is more accessible than any other Sondheim score that I’m familiar with. The singing is terrific. All the cast have impeccable diction. I could hear every word, which can’t be easy when you’re dealing with wordy Sondheim lyrics.
If I have one quibble about Merrily We Roll Along it’s that it could be more understated. It hits you over the head with its tender message of the savagery of time. But that’s a minor complaint. If you’ve ever felt intoxicated by the past and musings about what brought you to your present position, this show will charm you.