Reviewed at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London. Merrily We Roll Along transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre on 23 April.
This has very much been a season of for first-rate revivals of second-rate Broadway musicals, and Maria Friedman’s production of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth Merrily We Roll Along is an admirable addition to the list.
A failure on Broadway in 1981, the musical has (like Sondheim’s Follies) been rewritten and tinkered with repeatedly over the years – Sondheim’s volume of collected lyrics offers alternate versions of almost every song – and the text used here differs from the one seen at the Donmar in 2000.
The most notable change is cutting the clumsy frame of the school assembly and diving right into the story of Franklin Shepard, talented young songwriter who becomes a rich Hollywood producer, shedding friends, wives and values along the way. The gimmick is that, as in the 1930s’ play that inspired it, the story is told in reverse order, beginning with the successful but soul-dead Franklin and moving backward to the hopes and dreams of youth. (As in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, the device doesn’t really work, the ironies all being a bit obvious and heavy-handed, though in the musical it does allow for some nice effects, like having a reprise precede the full version of a song, and letting the show end with the optimistic ‘Our Time’.)
What Merrily We Roll Along does have are some of Sondheim’s loveliest and most touching songs. There’s the double-edged love song ‘Not a Day Goes By’, which can be inspirational or heart-breaking depending on who’s singing it, the title song and the catchy ‘Old Friends’ – classics all of them.
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