Merrily Rolling Along to a West End Musical

Faced with London's staggering variety of theater options, I picked the hugely enjoyable revival of Stephen Sondheim's 'Merrily We Roll Along,' a musical told in reverse.

LONDON -- When a man who has been starved is suddenly given massive heaps of food, danger ensues. What do you choose? How do you not gorge yourself sick?

A certain theater aficionado – me, to be specific – faced a similar quandary when I arrived in London for a week after living for too long on a beggar's diet of Israeli theater. The city's stages opened their bounty to me, and believe me, there's no fear of poisoning.

The problem, rather, was the opposite. What to write about first? Should I describe the two Shakespeare productions, one entirely loyal to its original text and radically free, bold and even subversive? Both tackle gender politics are both, well, are wonderful.

And what about the two completely new productions, both of which I was able to watch in their debut? They are by renowned contemporary English playwrights and cast, both of them, with glowing stars of screen and stage alike.

I decided to devote this space to a classic. It only recently became well-known but it will run until the beginning of March. Most of the tickets are already sold, but don't fret. I was able to snap up seats for a Sunday matinee.

"Merrily We Roll Along" is a musical by Steven Sondheim (lyrics and music) and George Furth, based on the 1934 play of the same name by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. It deals with, at least on the face of it, the importance and place of musical theater, both by dint of the quality of the production and because of the special venue in which it is performed.

The place is the Menier Chocolate Factory, a theater space seating 180 on the southern banks of the River Thames. The building was actually a chocolate factory in the 19th century, and since the beginning of this century, this so-called fringe theater has tackled an ambitious repertoire of both plays and musicals.Some of them are revivals and new productions of Sondheim creations.

According to Menier director Trevor Nunn, "Some theatre spaces have magic and you don’t know why at the top of that list is the Chocolate Factory, a brilliantly run, thrillingly adventurous theatre that is taking London by storm.”

Nunn knows what he's talking about. He directed there Sondheim's "A Little Night Music," in a 2008 revival that conquered London and later Broadway. The brilliant artistic director is David Babani, who also directed in this space Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George." The director of the current production is Maria Friedman, an actress and singer who herself portrayed several Sondheim roles. This is her first round as a director, and she's drawing upon training she earned in theater school.

Sondheim's music and lyrics are special. But there are two other lovely aspects of this creation. The tale is told in reverse, from the end to the beginning, just as Kaufman and Hart did in their original play. The show opens in 1976, at a glamorous Hollywood party following the debut of a film produced by Franklin Shephard, once a successful composer of musicals.

Shephard is mired in his second divorce, from a former musical star addicted to success. An old friend Mary, once an author and now a critic, is also at the party, drunk, and she forces Franklin to confront the emptiness of his success in contrast to his earlier dreams.

From here the story goes backward in time, to the crisis in the relationship between the composer and his lyricist friend Charley Kringas, who tries to be loyal to both his friend and his ideals. Kringas gets even with Franklin during a joint television interview – the least suitable venue possible.

Then the story goes further back in time, to the two's first commercial success, when they gave in to the directive of the producer and the star, when they still believe they'll get back to doing their "real thing."

Charging backwards, the play traces 20 years in reverse, showing how art is commercialized, brave friendships crumble and how the stages of family life stack up. The lyricist is married with children; the composer divorces and is estranged from his son; the author-critic stands alone with a dashed love for the composer.

The final picture is also the first. The play ends at the beginning, on a New York roof in 1957, when the three young people squint up at the sky in hopes of seeing Sputnik, the Russian satellite. In this moment, they believe they can change the world by writing a musical, a type of entertainment theater, one that will speak to the hearts of so many. And they believe they will do it without losing their ideals, without succumbing to the commercial gods, and without sacrificing the brave friendship they share.

What makes the story so beautiful is there is no fear of a spoiler. Its effect comes from the fact that the audiences reaches the end fully aware of what is coming. So you watch the pain and tribulations, you watch those who deceive themselves and those who face dark reality, and you are exposed to the raw naivete of what this was supposed to be.

There is a story outside the musical, as well. Sondheim showed "Merrily We Roll Along" on Boradway, in the heyday of the American commercial musical in 1981, after he was already a famous lyricist with "West Side Story" under his belt. He had also made his mark as an innovative composer, having scribbled "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Company," "A Little Night Music," and "Sweeney Todd").

Hal Prince produced and directed, and the production opened to admiring but lukewarm reviews. It closed after just 16 shows. For Sondheim, it was a stinging case of life imitating art: the composer and lyricist writes a play about refusing to compromise for commercial success, and sees his show go dark prematurely.

Since then, the musical has been brought back from the brink. It has done well in new productions in England as well as on Broadway, even though nothing about it changed in terms of its structure, music or message. Listening to it today, the musical is still as complex as opera. Its vocal and instrumental compositions consist of five simultaneously sounded motifs. It still possesses melodic and rhythmic layers, even while its tunes are eminently hummable.

And today Sondheim doesn’t have to prove himself to anyone, a feat achieved without compromising himself. He is just like his imagined composer, meeting the demands of the musical's lyricist. Perhaps it's because, fortunately for Sondheim, he is a two-in-one creature, and the struggles between words and music don’t jeopardize the balance.

Sondheim has said that among all his works, "Merrily We Roll Along," is the most autobiographical, certainly at the beginning of the plot, which is the end of the play.

Back then, Sondheim theorized that the musical failed because it starred singers-actors who were too young. They lacked the necessary wisdom required to tackle a plot spanning 20 years. Maria Friedman, writing in the musical's program, notes that casting is 90 percent of the directing. For this production,

she chose a relatively older and experienced group of actors and dancers. They sing and dance well (this production has a musical number in the best tradition of the musical finale) and, although this is a group, each individual manages to mold several versions of a single character.

The brilliance of the casting lies in the three main characters: Mark Umbers has the looks, charisma and smile of a Hollywood movie star, coupled external naiveté of youth. Damian Humbley plays the pudgy, geeky, bespectacled lyricist, exactly as neurotic as expected and required of his character. And Jenna Russell, in the role of Mary, the female hypotenuse of this friendship triangle of friends is warm and touching, bringing the sort of sparkle best elicited by a girl next door.

Every time I hear a recording or see a staging of a Sondheim musical I am struck anew. It's not just that the music is gorgeous of the plot is always surprising. It's the lyrics, which in addition to their brilliant alliteration and clever rhymes, are at their core simple human truths.

The same holds for "Merrily We Roll Along." It is a testament to the creative process and to friendship and success. It is a musical about the need to be true to oneself, to kiss illusions goodbye, but to never, ever, give up on one's dreams.

Tristam Kenton