Huntington's "Merrily We Roll Along": Yesterday Is Done?

Eden Espinosa, Mark Umbers & Damian Humbley in "Merrily We Roll Along"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Arguably the most eagerly anticipated piece of this season's theatrical offerings, Merrily We Roll Along might carry a precaution to fasten one's seat belt, as it might be a bumpy night; at least it used to be so, even for those of us who have always embraced this show despite its (formerly) formidable flaws. Leave it to the folks at Huntington Theatre Company to provide a resounding affirmation of the depth and dimensions of this problematic work by presenting the American premiere of the 2010 British production by Director Maria Friedman (a former actress in her directorial debut). The original New York incarnation of the work opened in 1981 and ran for a disappointing 16 performances, instantly becoming part of Broadway legend. It was revised in 1985, then even more thoroughly in 1992 (in Leicester England; now that's off-Broadway!). One of the lead cast members in Leicester was Friedman herself, who was to helm her own version in 2010, moving it to the West End of London and earning an Olivier Award for Best Musical. With Music and Lyrics by Steven Sondheim (comprising his most melodic score) and Book by George Furth, based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it shares with it its source material the unconventional form of unfolding in reverse. The original musical version was deemed incomprehensible by critics and audiences alike. So the question revolving around this production was, could this musical mounting equal the company's prior successes with the likes of Candide, Jungle Book, and She Loves Me? The answer is an emphatic no.
It surpasses them.

Under Friedman, this show has finally found its footing. Sondheim himself declared this version the best he's ever seen, considering the sum greater than its parts, so, as the first sung line in the musical proclaims, “yesterday is done”, and what had been theater's major problem child has now assumed its more proper place in the theatrical stratosphere. This has been a terrific Boston theater season thus far (with one exception), but Merrily is head and shoulders above all else on the current horizon. Let's not mince words; this is (at the risk of seeming hyperbolic) the finest piece of theater, musical or otherwise, of the past few decades (and, yes, that includes the phenomenal Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen). Friedman is unquestionably a genius, with so many magical touches and underlying understanding of the material.

Aimee Doherty in "Merrily We Roll Along"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The story takes place over about twenty years, from 1976, backwards to 1957. It's the tale of three friends and their varied successes in their respective careers in showbiz. These central figures are Franklin Shepard (Mark Umbers), a songwriter and ultimately also a movie producer, Mary (Eden Espinosa), a theater critic (a dubious profession that!), and Frank's collaborator in song-writing, lyricist Charley Kringas (Damian Humbley). It's worthy of note that Umbers, a Brit, and Humbley, an Australian, are joined now by Espinosa, an American, for an impressively cosmopolitan cast. Even more impressive is the range of local talent on display. The Patriots should only have a bench of such menches. First there are Frank's two ambitious wives, the ever-trusting Beth (Jennifer Ellis) and the hussy Gussie (Aimee Doherty), played by these two locally renowned veterans of countless star turns. Also of proven star power are Christopher Chew (notably as Sweeney Todd , here playing producer Joe Josephson), Robert Saoud (in multiple roles, renowned for his Tevye), Bransen Gates (a standout in Barnum), Maurice Emmanuel Parent (also in multiple roles, most recently in Scottsboro Boys), and Rebecca Gibel (a Providence Trinity Rep regular). Chew, in fact, gets to sing and sling the best line, an inside joke of a benevolent barb at Rodgers and Hammerstein's proclivity for “hummable” melodies like those in South Pacific. And then there are the three pluperfect leads, each with her or his turns that threaten to break our hearts. Umbers, Espinosa and Humbley inhabit their roles, individually and together, in performances that have to be seen to be appreciated for their indescribably definitive (there's that word again) nature in the challenges of dialogue and reverse verse.

As Sondheim notes in his memoir Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics 1954-1981 with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, content dictates form, thus frequently in this work a reprise comes long before a fully developed song, rather than the usual vice versa, sort of a reprise reprise. We also first see and hear these people as they are in 1976, deteriorated into compromise and deceit, years after their idealized expectations for the future. Thus the Old Friends section of Like It Was, a reprise, is heard later in the play in a scene set five years earlier. The most striking example of inverted history is the placement of Charley's “eleven o'clock number” at about the equivalent of eight o'clock or so, soon after the play begins; it's his solo Franklin Shepard Inc in the form of a nervous breakdown, a staple of Sondheim (Getting Married Today from Company, Rose's Turn from Gypsy or Live, Laugh, Love from Follies). Another, the hauntingly beautiful Not a Day Goes By, is initially sung ruefully by his soon-to-be-ex-wife, yet earlier in their lives (and later in the play) it's experienced as a love song. So you get the picture, and you'll find yourself aching to reach out (as Holden Caulfield did in Catcher in the Rye with his younger sister approaching the cliff of adulthood) to throttle these folks with the wrong decisions we know they're going to make. Part of its appeal is that, like all good mystery stories (as Hitchcock knew best), the audience knows more than the protagonists. We begin with the known future and look to discovering the past and finding out how they started out on this journey.

Eden Espinosa, Jennifer Ellis, Mark Umbers & Damian Humbley in "Merrily We Roll Along"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
A significant problem for the show has always been that we thus meet the main character of (the older) Frank as unsympathetic, arrogant and an adulterer, having driven his friend Mary (obvious to everyone but him that she's in love with him) to drink. As the play progresses backwards we grow to see the bad choices he made, torn between decisions, making the wrong ones, leading to frayed friendships after earlier and happier memories. The team of Shepard and Kringas had some initial success with a topical off-Broadway revue, Bobby and Jackie and Jack, and their first Broadway show, Musical Husbands. Their optimism is reflected in the song Opening Doors, which Sondheim admits reflects his own early career, its stages, spurts, and struggles. The cast handles this challenge with aplomb. They're ably abetted by the the creative contributions, including Choreography by Tim Jackson (repeating his London work), Scenic and Costume Design by Soutra Gilmour (also repeating from the London version, with wonderfully awful depictions of styles over the two decades of the story and a fabulous ever-changing set rife with topical allusions like a Frank Stella piece), pitch perfect Music Direction by Matthew Stern, wondrous Lighting Design by Philip S. Rosenberg, and riveting Sound Design by John Shivers and Kevin Kennedy.

It's easy to see why Sondheim and many others consider this version to be definitive, in its treatment of humanity, friendship and, as Friedman puts it, “above all, joy”. There is love and connection, and notable dramatic logic, in its nine scenes portraying this tale that is both tragic and hopeful in its discerning of dreams. She notes its “blending of opposing themes” and how the “outside world can grab you away from simple relationships, loyalty, honesty...we see how precious they are if you let them go”. The show remains a unique hybrid, both very funny and very sad. These characters are depicted first as cynical and jaded, while by the end of the show they're seen as buoyant and hopeful. It's a verbal and musical roller coaster of a theater piece, finally achieving the masterpiece status that had been just out of reach. One may cry at its hopeful and optimistic moments as well as its sadder but wiser ones, but when did you last find yourself crying because a theater work was so profound, and profoundly beautiful?

As Sondheim prayed in his earlier work, The Frogs: “Gods of the theater, smile on us”, and so for Merrily they have, at last. It's the unqualified hit of the past few decades, and will be rolling along through October 15 (though, if there's any justice in the world, it will have a future as well). Miss it at your peril.

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