A life story backwards: Merrily We Roll Along
Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along is the winner of this year’s London’s Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards for Best Musical.
It is a musical I have known and loved for over 30 years. Based on a 1934 play by Kauffman and Hart with the same name, it traces the lives of three people – backwards. The central story revolves around Franklin Shepard, an aspiring and talented composer who becomes ambitious, is sucked into money making and betrays his friends. Like the play, the musical starts with Shepard at the peak of his fame – and the breakdown of his relationships and his life. It then moves backwards, rolling his life back (not really so merrily: the title is ironic) through various ‘critical moments’ from adult crises to youthful dreams.
This story line has often confused its audience. The characters grow younger till they reach their optimistic youth at the end. This has meant that in some early performances, the actors wore T shirts emblazoned with their character names, so the plot and its development could be made clearer! All in all many saw the musical as a mess. It was for many years considered to be Sondheim’s big ‘flop’, and the opening New York production in 1981 ran for only 16 nights getting appalling views. Despite all this I loved it.The performers were young and captured the energy of youth. I fell in love with it all. (The first production I saw was at The Bloomsbury Theatre and the second was the Performing Arts at New York University). Some folks – like me- can’t help just having bad taste! Despite this, over the years I have seen five different productions; and it remains my favourite Sondheim.
Still, as they like to say in the worlds of musicals , a musical is never written – it is rewritten. And so has this been. In the earliest productions that I recall, the musical started with a commencement and valedictorian speech – a ‘tell it like it is ‘ story. Since then Sondheim has reworked it and reworked it. New songs have been added – ‘Growing Old’, ‘The Blob’ – and the definitive changed production is generally seen to be that at Leicester in 1994. As any author knows some times this means cutting your favourite bits – and some of my own favourite key moments have gone. “Behold the hills of tomorrow” was cut and the valedictorian speech was dropped. A youthful cast was also changed into a middle aged one. And the story lines were tightened up. No need for the T shirts! New songs were added – ‘Growing Old’, The Blob’ – and the definitive changed production is generally seen to be that at Leicester in 1994.
This new production at the Chocolate Factory, that fine home of the musical, is the best I have seen. In a first ever production from Maria Friedman, the musical becomes razor sharp. The cast is flawless. Friedman knows this musical inside out and she makes the characters tingle with tragic life. No wonder it has been rediscovered as a ‘best musical’. I am so pleased it is at last recognised.