When it opened late last year in London, the Menier Chocolate Factory's production of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along was praised for having finally cracked the structural nut of one of the composer's rare flops. Premiering on Broadway in 1981, at the critical height of Sondheim's collaborations with director Harold Prince (Sweeney Todd had debuted to acclaim in 1979), the original version of the musical was panned for its confusing plot and closed after only 16 performances.
Based on the Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman play of the same name, Merrily famously unspools in reverse chronology (much like Harold Pinter's Betrayal, which had opened on Broadway just the year before, perhaps accounting for some audience fatigue with the dramatic conceit). In the first scene, set in 1977, we are introduced to our protagonist, Frank Shepard, a big-time Hollywood film producer who, we learn, has abandoned his earlier aspirations to write musicals and, along with them, his writing partner Charlie and their mutual friend, Mary. Thereafter we gradually learn how Frank "got here" (as Sondheim's opening number repeatedly declaims), moving backwards in time to discover, in turn: the fatal split between Frank and Charlie; the break-up of Frank's first marriage as a result of his affair with his leading lady, Gussie; Frank and Charlie's first big hit; the early days of Frank and Charlie and Mary trying to make a go of their respective careers in New York; and, finally, the initial meeting of our three main characters in 1957 (catching the launch of the satellite Sputnik from an apartment rooftop) and their revelling in how "everything's gonna change" because "it's our time." Though, of course, the musical is based on the earlier Hart and Kaufman play, with the somewhat too talky book adapted by George Furth, it is possible to read Merrily as Sondheim's self-reflexive comment on the state of his own career at the time. Which perhaps explains some of the Schadenfreude the New York critics took in "bringing him down" over the original production.
A more interesting reading to me, having just seen with Richard the Menier production last night in a "live capture" simulcast at the Scotiabank Cinemas, has to do with Sondheim's critique of heteronormativity, and marriage in particular. The trio of friends at the centre of the plot, superbly played by Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell, and Damian Humbley, form an art-life bond that, initially at least, is posited as an aesthetic, economic, and political alternative to conventional relationships. And director Maria Friedman certainly plays up the homosocial elements of Frank and Charlie's partnership, with Mary, unrequitedly in love with Frank, the classically Sedgwickian female pivot through which they filter their affection for each other.
Then, too, as Richard pointed out, Sondheim's score also seems to be doing something interesting, using the reverse chronology of the play to strip the complexity of the orchestrations and tonal structures back to essential core elements that the composer seems to be associating with a classic era of musical production in America. Not that I think Merrily is inherently nostalgic. Rather, I think that what Sondheim is showing us is his own compositional process, a process that is both complexly innovative and richly historical, at once creative and deconstructive. And all of this within a score that has been read as one of his more accessible (and there are witty allusions to Frank and Charlie needing to write more hummable tunes).
A previous London revival of Sunday in the Park (also starring Russell) eventually made its way to Broadway. We'll see if this Menier version of Merrily also crosses the pond and finally gets its due in New York.