It’s still backwards.

A little over twenty years ago, I saw Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along for the first time – the Leicester Haymarket production, directed by Paul Kerryson and starring Michael Cantwell, Evan Pappas, and Maria Friedman. Back then, I was roughly the same age the three central characters are at the end of the show. This weekend, I’ve seen the Menier Chocolate Factory‘s exceptionally fine new revival, which is also Friedman’s professional debut as a director (she had previously directed a student production at the Central School of Speech and Drama). Now, I’m roughly the same age the three central characters are in the opening scene. Yes, it’s still backwards – but it has possibly never worked as well as it does here.

This is, of course, a show with a famously chequered history. The original Broadway production, in 1981, played more than three times as many previews as performances; during previews, the choreographer and the leading man were both replaced, and all the original costumes were thrown out, so that the show opened with the actors wearing coloured sweatshirts emblazoned with their characters’ names. It was a catastrophic flop, but it yielded a cast recording (recorded the day after the show closed); that recording reveals a score that, while patchy, is sometimes glorious, and that contains some of Sondheim’s most exuberant music.

Sondheim and Furth subsequently made several significant cuts and changes to the show, culminating in the 1992 and 1993 revivals in Leicester and off-Broadway, both of which were recorded. The Leicester production – I saw it twice – made a good case for the show as a problematic but playable piece that, while not perfect, was better than its reputation, despite a book by Furth that is never quite as penetrating or as witty as it thinks it is. It also had good performances from Michael Cantwell and Evan Pappas, and a phenomenal one from Maria Friedman as Mary Flynn, the novelist and critic whose unrequited love for her best friend drives her to alcoholism. That production, too, yielded a cast recording – almost unheard-of from a British regional production that didn’t transfer to London – and while it, like the show itself, is not perfect (not all the performances come across as well on the recording as they did in the theatre, and the percussion is far too high in the mix, and sounds like it’s being played by a Muppet on meth), I’ve listened to it a lot over the past twenty years.

And now it’s been revived again (there was a 2000 revival at the Donmar Warehouse; I was living abroad at the time, so I missed it). This time around, although the script is essentially the same as the one used twenty-one years ago in Leicester, the surprise is the extent to which Friedman and her brilliant cast have made the piece’s inherent difficulties disappear. This is possibly as good a production of the show as you will ever see.

Merrily, at heart, is a show about friendship gone wrong. Sondheim and Furth follow twenty years in the lives of Franklin Shepherd (a composer who sells out to Hollywood), Charley Kringas (a would-be playwright and Frank’s lyricist) and their friend Mary Flynn (a novelist and critic who carries a secret torch for Frank). We first meet them – Frank and Mary in the first scene, Charley in the second – in bitter, alienated middle age; as the show progresses, we slowly go back in time towards the night of Frank and Charley’s first meeting with Mary, and we gradually get to see how the friendship between the three grew and waned, and how Frank and Charley’s writing partnership went off the rails.

The reverse chronology makes it a formidably difficult show to cast; the original production used fresh-out-of-college twenty-year-olds, who by all accounts were not at all successful in the brittle, angry early scenes in Act One. Friedman goes in the opposite direction; she’s cast actors who read at the upper end of the play’s age range, and as the performance progresses they have to gradually age down in front of the audience. Not at all an easy thing to do, particularly in a tiny theatre, but this cast manage it triumphantly – in the final scene, you never, even for a moment, feel you’re watching adults playing kids. Friedman uses a simple framing device (the graduation scenes that originally framed the action are cut from the version of the show that’s now standard) . At the top of the show, as the title song begins, Frank is alone onstage holding what looks like a script; the script turns out to be the two one-act plays Charley wrote in college, and the final image is Frank, costumed as he was in the opening scene, holding the same script. Essentially, then, the show is middle-aged Frank trying to work out where his life went wrong.

To that end, the opening Hollywood party scene is brutal. Mark Umbers’s Frank is clearly not riding the crest of a wave. He’s stretched to breaking-point and full of self-loathing, even as he smiles for his guests; when he finally explodes at Jenna Russell’s Mary, it’s because her barbs have hit him where it hurts. Russell, for her part, makes Mary a truly mean drunk, but you see and feel the genuine hurt underneath her bitterness (it helps, too, that Russell is one of those people who can get a laugh and break your heart on the same beat). In the following scene, Damian Humbley, as Charley, delivers ‘Franklin Shepherd, Inc.’ with devastating force.  It’s a diatribe that clearly comes from years of frustration, and it’s riveting. Throughout the show, Friedman and her cast do an exceptional job of locating the emotional undercurrents between this central trio; even in the very, very bitter opening scenes, you see flashes of their charm, and all three are absolutely compelling. As the show progresses, their charm only increases – ‘Bobby and Jackie and Jack’, which is far from the best thing in the score, gets probably as good a performance as it’s ever had, helped by a wagonload of props and Tim Jackson’s clever choreography – and the final scene is very moving indeed. Their singing, too, is impeccable; in these hands, the glorious ‘Our Time’ soars. These are three phenomenal singing actors, and they’re all giving phenomenal performances.

The good news doesn’t end there. Glyn Kerslake is drily funny as producer Joe Josephson (a role that was played by Jason Alexander, later of ‘Seinfeld’ fame, in the original Broadway production), and Josefina Gabrielle makes man-eating Broadway star Gussie, Frank’s second wife, into a more fascinating figure than you’d ever guess was possible from the script – sexy, materialistic, ambitious, calculating, and far more intelligent than she lets on. She’s matched by Clare Foster’s Beth, who finds all the hurt in ‘Not a Day Goes By’ – in lesser hands, one of Sondheim’s most overly lugubrious ballads – in Act One, and is quietly radiant in the second half. Friedman knows the show backwards (forwards?), and she’s treated it, essentially, as an extended character study; the performances supply most of what’s missing in the book (which, even in this revised version, is not Furth’s best work), and the emotional payoff at the end is substantial. The tiny venue (and stage) helps; you can see into the actors’ eyes, and the intimacy really works for the show.

It’s not quite a perfect production. David Hersey’s lighting is terrific, but while Soutra Gilmour’s unit set – a ‘Mad Men’-era interior whose window opens onto either a swimming pool or the Manhattan skyline – is fine in the opening scenes, it’s too clean a space for the later ones. Her costumes, though, do an excellent job of keeping us aware of when we are in each scene. And giving the final transitional reprise of the title song to the kid playing Frank Jr. is a step too far – it doesn’t really work, although Noah Miller, the child at the performance I saw, was perfectly charming and sang it nicely. There are some rookie mistakes in the blocking – whatever the configuration, the Menier is a tricky space, but a little more attention should have been paid to sightlines.  And while the nine-piece band, under the direction of Catherine Jayes, are terrific, I wish they hadn’t cut about half the overture.

Those quibbles aside, though, this production is a major achievement, and – for Friedman – an astounding directorial debut, despite a couple of caveats. Without resorting to flashy staging flourishes, she’s taken a very, very difficult show – one which has never entirely worked in any previous incarnation – and she’s delivered a reading of it that probes deeper into the material’s heart than you would imagine possible. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

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One thought on “It’s still backwards.

  1. Interesting review that makes me want to see the production. Two little points I’d like to mention in response:

    Although ibdb and the Sondheim Reference Guide site list Oct. 1, 1981, as the date of the first preview, but this is not correct. Previews actually started on Oct. 8, 1981, and I believe they totaled 44. In any case, they couldn’t have totaled 52 in the amount of time that previews actually played. I don’t know why they have the wrong date, but they do. If you look on page 275 of Sondheim & Co., you’ll see the correct date, and other sources from the time period of the production confirm that date. So the production didn’t actually play more three times as many previews as it did performances.

    Also, I’m not sure that Friedman had much choice about giving the final transitional reprise of the title song to Frank, Jr. I believe that’s what’s in the current licensed version.

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