Sondheim fans know the checkered history of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. It was given a disastrous production by Harold Prince in 1981 after which Sondheim and Prince parted ways until Prince created a pretty awful production of WISE GUYS two decades later. George Furth's book, like the George S. Kaufman play on which it is based, goes backward in time, taking the characters from forty to twenty. Prince's idea was to have young unknown performers play the characters with the action as a flashback from the central character, Franklin Shepard, speaking at a graduation of his high school over two decades after he graduated. The high school kids suddenly became the characters in Shepard's story. None of it worked. A few years later, Sondheim and James Lapine revised the show for a production at the La Jolla Playhouse. There and for most productions since, the characters have been played by actors closer to the age of the characters at the end of their story (the beginning of the show) and the opening scene at the high school graduation has been scrapped. Over the years Sondheim has made other revisions in the score and some changes have been made to the book by Furth, Lapine and others.
The recent London production, first presented at the tiny Menier Chocolate Factory, but then transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre, has a few new moments, one of which is misjudged. Maria Friedman has staged the show simply and deftly on a unit set. There's a good small band in the pit -- all brass and winds as in the original production. The cast is a mixed bag. Gavin Umbers is fine as Franklin Shepard. Like Bobby in COMPANY (same book writer, George Furth), Frank is a bit of a cipher. He exists mostly in his friends' definitions of him. We're told he's a great composer, though the few examples of songs he has written don't seem that good -- the rest of the score is better. We're told that by becoming a Hollywood producer he has totally sold out artistically and spiritually. Gavin Umbers made as much of his character as one can make. He didn't work the magic on the weakly written character that Rupert Young worked on COMPANY's Bobby a couple of years ago, but one could see Frank's sense of his own emptiness. The judgments of Frank are mostly made by his two best friends, lyricist Charlie Kringas (Damian Humbly) and lovelorn dipsomaniac, Mary Flynn (Jenna Russell). In previous productions, Charlie usually steals the show, but Humbly was merely dull in the part. He came to life for his big number, Franklin Shepard Inc., but mostly seemed to be a judgmental bore. Mary is a tricky part. Why is she part of this menage? Charlie marries her roommate, but Mary remains a crucial part of the Franklin-Charlie-Mary threesome. Of course, one of the points of the musical is that friendship is greatly nostalgia for the youthful moment when these people became friends, but has little grounding in the present. Mary and Charlie love Frank, but they don't like him. On the night I saw the show, Russell overacted a bit. Over the years, the role of Frank's second wife, musical comedy star Gussie Carnegie, has grown. Now she has a big second act opening number, supposedly the Broadway hit Frank and Charlie have written for her. The song is almost a parody of a bad, generic 1950s musical production number, more Hollywood than Broadway. If this is the sort of thing Frank Shepard wrote, he was wise to become a producer.
All of which is to say that there are some wonderful numbers in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, but the show still doesn't quite work and not all the many revisions made over the years are improvements. This production has been enthusiastically hailed by the London critics and was cheered by a full house the night I saw it. I was certainly glad to see it. The last scene which takes place as the young Frank, Charlie and Mary watch Sputnick soar over their New York City rooftop, is still one of them most moving moments in musical theatre. However, even the genius Sondheim can't fully bring these characters to life.
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. Harold Pinter Theatre. June 25, 2013.