Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Book by: George Furth
Stephen Sondheim is a giant of American musical theatre. Since writing the lyrics to West Side Story in 1957, aged 27, Sondheim has been responsible for a body of work which has redefined the form - and moved musical theatre from being a theatrical hybrid designed to offer light diversion, to a complex and challenging art form, pushing boundaries and taken seriously around the world.
When Sondheim, and his producer/director Hal Prince, launched their latest show Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway in 1981, expectations were sky high. This was to be the latest opus from the team that could do no wrong. Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), had established Prince and Sondheim as a Tony Award winning team.
They played fast and loose with theatrical convention, breaking the rules of narrative and putting spiky and difficult words and melodies into the mouths of performers. Sondheim became known as an actor’s composer. He does with melody what Shakespeare did with verse - unlocking the codes within the music is to understand the psychology of the characters. For actors and directors, there is nothing richer or more rewarding.
After a string of hit shows, Merrily We Roll Along proved to be a famous theatrical disaster, closing on Broadway after only 16 performances, and marking the end of Sondheim and Prince’s partnership. Whether it was the complicated narrative that ran backwards, with the characters starting in their late 40s and ending in their idealistic early 20s, the perceived unlikeability of the leads - their friendship becoming irreconcilably ruptured as poor life decisions shatter their youthful optimism, or the fact that production difficulties caused Prince to throw out the set and costumes at a late stage in rehearsals, dressing the young cast in jeans and sweatshirts, with each character’s name or function written on their chests, audiences walked out in droves and the reviews were savage. The crushing experience for the young cast, who were aged between 16 and 21 is brilliantly depicted in Lonny Price’s documentary ‘The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened’ (available on Netflix).
While Sondheim went on to write the brilliant and highly acclaimed Sunday in The Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins and Passion - Merrily We Roll Along was not forgotten. Partly because of an exceptional original cast recording, and the cult following Sondheim held in theatrical circles, the musical began to be revived and reworked.
There have been many attempts to ‘fix’ the problem show, and appreciation of the exceptional score, which contains some of Sondheim’s most memorable songs, has added to the gradual reinstatement of the work to sit strongly within Sondheim’s body of work as one of his most brilliant and challenging shows.
Merrily We Roll Along is perfect for a Drama School cohort with musical strengths. It requires the 20 performers to age backwards across 30 years, it immerses them in an exceptional score, it depicts creative individuals, trying to forge a life in the arts, and it deals with the universal themes of friendship, ambition and time.
For me as a director, this marks my return to Toi Whakaari after 31 years, to work with the students in one of the few remaining environments in this country where a true acting ensemble is able to thrive, as well as the opportunity to return to Sondheim and direct a work that has meant a lot to me my whole adult life.