And so, I decided to write this review backwards, starting at the end of the night and finishing at the beginning. How hard could it be?
Are people just going wild for this because it’s Sondheim? Because it’s a Menier production? Can the West End transfer possibly be a success for a show that, if scenes were run in chronological order, would be seen as a rather workaday piece?
But the main problem with Merrily We Roll Along is that its time reversal doesn’t add anything to the story. It’s all very well asking “how did we get here?” – but if we end the night knowing just as much as when we started, you can’t help but feel disappointed.
What you end up taking away from Merrily is Jenna Russell’s performance as Mary, the woman whose unrequited love turns her into a hilariously drunken lush by the start of the play. It’s one of the standout performances, along with that of Josefina Gabrielle as the social climber and Broadway chanteuse who is revealed to have humbler origins.
Sondheim stalwart Maria Friedman, here moving to the director’s chair, brings an assured hand to proceedings. Every comedic punchline is hit, every wink to Broadway and Hollywood cliché is all knowing.
The second act is also where Clare Foster really comes into her own, as Shepard’s supportive first wife in the days before the lure of fame led him astray from his dreams and her life. Her introduction at the end of the first act as an embittered divorcée is a tough one to pull off, but she manages it – and as we follow her journey back to happier times, she lights up the stage.
“You need a hummable melody,” Shepard is told in the second act – to knowing laughs in the audience. Mainly from us.
During the interval, my friend and I discussed how the show isn’t one of Sondheim’s best, no matter how beautiful the score. What annoys us, we agree, is no matter how much you love the music, there’s no standout melody to any of them.
(Maybe I need a haircut.)
As the show’s consistent moral compass, Damian Humbley – who I first met at a party while he was in The Woman in White, and have since seen onstage in a number of guises, including Max in the short-lived but very good Lend Me a Tenor: The Musical – is transformed here: not the handsome leading man that he projects offstage and (usually) on, but a likeable supporting nerd whose bouffant hair disguises his otherwise rugged charms.
Mark Umbers looks, sings and dances the part as Franklin Shepard, the composer whose path we first see ending up a long way from where it was originally planned. I’ve always found Umbers a little too clinical and clean-cut for my tastes: I always get a feeling that I’ve watched a technically accomplished performance, but not one that I could connect to emotionally. Nothing changes here: Shepard is likeable enough, but it’s the worlds that revolve around him that capture the real attention.
Played in the correct order, the musical would be a fun, but straightforward treatise on how composers should eschew commercial work in favour of having faith in the artistic merits of their own work. So it feels like the temporal structure is in place not to add anything, but instead to disguise an emptiness.
To a certain extent, my fears played out.
I’d never seen Merrily We Roll Along on stage before, although I’ve been to so many Stephen Sondheim revues that most of the songs sound familiar. What could a reverse narrative bring to a musical about three friends?
Reverse-order narrative is a tough technique to get right, but I’ve always felt that it needs to have a payoff. If a comedian starts with the punchline, you need him to take you somewhere else in the follow-up, just as magicians Penn and Teller can start a routine explaining how a trick works, only to fool you into watching a completely different illusion. Writer Jonathan Harvey’s new project, Tomorrow I’ll Be Happy, written for young people and being performed via the NT Connections scheme, uses a similar technique to look at the after-effects of a homophobic hate crime. As the play progresses, we are drawn closer and closer to cataclysm. That’s how it should be done.