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Merrily we roll along
Royal George Theatre
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by George Furth, 1981
Directed by Jackie Maxwell

Play summary | Globe and Mail review

From the program:

The play begins at the home of film producer Franklin Shepard in the chic district of Bel Air, near Los Angeles, in the late 1970s. A party is in progress to celebrate the premiere of his new motion picture, Darkness Before Dawn, the latest in his string of popular successes. But the party develops some embarrassing moments: first Franklin's old friend Mary Flynn, an acid-tongued writer based in New York, starts showing the effect of too many cocktails. Then it becomes evident that Franklin is having an affair with the starry-eyed starlet of his film, and that his wife Gussie is ready for a confrontation.

When Stephen Sondheim and George Furth decided to turn this play into a musical, they retained its distinctive reverse-chronological order but changed the time period to reflect an America following World War II rather than World War I. In the Sondheim/Furth version, after the Bel Air party scene the action moves back in time through the 1970s and '60s, until we finally meet the three young friends on a rooftop in New York in 1957, waiting to see the first Sputnik in the sky overhead - literally witnessing the dawn of a new era.

The Globe and Mail's review:

Shaw rolls out its musical talents
Monday, May 27, 2002 Print Edition, Page R5

Rating: ***

Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along is a musical that creeps up on you. Initially, its reverse chronology -- the action begins in 1976 and ends in 1957 -- appears as mere gimmick, but gradually the structure becomes interesting while the easy songs grow more engaging with each reprise.

Merrily We Roll Along, which the Shaw Festival is currently reviving in a bright little production mounted by incoming artistic director Jackie Maxwell, was Sondheim's big flop. After various last-minute firings and hirings by director Harold Prince, it opened on Broadway in 1981 with an inexperienced cast dressed in jeans and T-shirts because the original costumes had been ditched.

It closed after 16 performances but has been subject to numerous small revivals since then, and a lot of rejigging from both Sondheim, who composed the songs and wrote the lyrics, and George Furth, who wrote the book. The piece finally won London's Olivier award for best musical of the year when it made its British debut at the Donmar Warehouse in 2000.

It squeaks into the Shaw's mandate (plays from or about the era between 1856-1950) because its inspiration was a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. That work similarly began by showing a playwright at the peak of his career and then following him and his friends, a novelist and a painter, backward to their idealistic youth.

Sondheim and Furth have pushed the action into their own time and changed the professions. Franklin Shepard (Tyley Ross) is a Broadway composer turned Hollywood filmmaker; Charley Kringas (Jay Turvey) is his lyricist and collaborator on a string of hit shows; Mary Flynn (Jenny L. Wright) is their best friend, an increasingly alcoholic Manhattan novelist.

In the opening scene, Frank is shown in his Bel Air home celebrating his hot new movie with sycophantic friends. The party is violently interrupted first by the embittered, drunken Mary, and then by Frank's furious wife Gussie (Charlotte Moore), the middle-aged Broadway star who has learned he is cheating on her with a Hollywood starlet. In the second scene, we discover the cause of Frank's estrangement from his old pal Charley, who takes the occasion of a joint TV interview to obnoxiously explain to the world (in the hilariously frenetic song Franklin Shepard Inc) how the composer can't get any composing done because he's too busy deal-making.

Thankfully, these characters get a whole lot nicer as they get younger, because no audience would want to dwell long with this gang. What they don't get is much more interesting: They are mere types. In the original play, the alcoholic novelist is said to have been based on Dorothy Parker, and here Wright is simply reproducing the modern equivalent of that figure, playing the familiar, smart-ass female sidekick role, the one who is, of course, hiding some greater hurt behind her plain face and big mouth.

Charley is the ever-lovable funny guy, warmly produced by Turvey. But Franklin is merely bland, and since Ross -- for all his pure voice and smooth looks -- is a bland performer at the best of times, there isn't much tension in this guy's descent from narrow self-interest to shallow idealism.

Well, Broadway musicals aren't the right place to go looking for three-dimensional characters. If these people are as predictable as their theme -- humans make mistakes in youth and compromises as they age -- it's the structure itself that proves intriguing as each scene reveals the key to the one before it. As you watch Moore's nicely observed Gussie, for example, retreat from a spoiled bitch to a manipulative if ebullient star to a wannabe in the midst of inventing herself, you have to mentally piece the process together and run it in reverse to recognize how the energetic ego that drove her forward will finally drag her down.

Similarly, if a song such as the ballad Not a Day Goes By sounds little more than trite when Glynis Ranney belts it out in the role of Frank's first wife Beth, then it takes on much more interesting emotional shadings when she and Wright sing it as a duet in the second act. In numbers such as Growing Up and Good Thing Going, Sondheim traces musical themes back through the show, echoing the reverse narrative, so that the songs become clearer and purer as he goes, until ending with the poignant energy of Our Time.

One of the reasons that Merrily We Roll Along first bombed on Broadway was that Prince had wanted to do a show about young people performed by young people and purposely cast neophyte performers in the roles. The concept is fascinating: If you could successfully mount this piece with teenagers you would confront the aging theatre audience with the spectacle of youth trying on the compromises of middle age as mere costumes that they would eventually strip back to reveal their own selves.

This production, enlivened by the smart work of the supporting cast and Valerie Moore's bright choreography, is finely enough tuned by Maxwell and musical director Paul Sportelli that some of that startling poignancy is radiating off the stage by the second act.

It's refreshing to see the Shaw Festival's musical talents, mired in happily-ever-after fluff for many a year, stretch themselves with this piece. Despite the narrowness of its characters, its very structure speaks tellingly to anyone over 30 of the truth that it is beginnings not endings that are happy.
Merrily We Roll Along runs at the Shaw Festival's Royal George Theatre until Oct. 26. For information: 1-800-511-7429

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