Harold Pinter Theatre
Performance date: 4 July 2013, matinee
2003: the second Iraq war begins, Nina Simone dies, and further tragedy strikes when Delta Goodrem’s first album charts at number one. What’s a 19-year-old university student do to take her mind off her these and Contract Law study troubles? Why, head out and see a student production of a forgotten Broadway musical at the Union House Theatre, of course, and cheer on a couple of acquaintances in the cast. Only, the musical doesn’t provide the usual pinkish glow that the boy will get the girl and all is right with the world. At least there were drinks afterwards.
Flash forward to 2013: A pope resigns, Nelson Mandela is in hospital in critical condition, and One Direction rules the charts. The now-lawyer is unemployed in London, escaping or chasing dreams and becoming overly acquainted with Jaffa Cakes. What better way to begin farewelling her tumultuous 20s than by pouncing on a cheap ticket deal to see a matinee musical, on one of the loveliest days of the summer?
Steven Sondheim’s 1981 musical, Merrily We Roll Along, a flop when it opened on Broadway, has been tweaked in the intervening years and revived to great acclaim in London in 2013. Transferring from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the West End for a limited run, the show presents in reverse chronological order the story of three idealistic, lefty friends who meet in New York in 1957 and end up bitter and feuding in Hollywood in 1976. Based on a much earlier play of the same name, the musical has a complicated message – looking at how easily dreams can get derailed, how friendships can crumble, how lives can turn on one choice. This uncertainty is underscored by the songs of the show, although toe-tappingly Sondheim, the songs sometimes appear in different forms which emphasise how easily things can turn from happy to melancholy – such as in the plaintive/love song “Not a Day Goes By”.
Jenna Russell, as alcoholic novelist Mary, is particularly good – delivering barbs from the first scene and singing beautifully, while Mark Umbers transitions well from full-of-himself, successful director Franklin Shepherd at the opening of the play, to puppy-dog hopeful graduate at the end. Damien Humbley, who makes up the third core character, was solid, although lacked an edge of rage in performing “Franklin Shepherd Inc” which would have made the relationship breakdown more believable.
The excellent supporting cast has some great roles and songs, and despite the sometimes judgmental tone of the piece, there are plenty of laughs. Costuming and staging are likewise a treat – a particular highlight is the black and white mod 1960s apartment scene – with everyone kitted out in fabulous outfits, apart from Mary who arrives late in a drag queen’s spangly dress. Watching the show again, I notice how stark the plot makes the choice between “following your dreams” and chasing the money. This preachy overtone probably went over my head ten years ago. But over-simplification is a trait of the musical and hasn’t been avoided, no matter how unusual the chronology of the story.
I thoroughly recommend Merrily We Roll Along for fans of the genre.
Meanwhile, I muse on the funny coincidence to have seen a musical dealing with ageing, friendships, career transitions and figuring out what really matters twice with a ten-year interval. I wonder if there will be a revival of Merrily We Roll Along for my 39th year and where it will find me…