A Sondheim musical for a Christmas season at the Menier Chocolate Factory is quite a big deal. The last two Sondheim shows that played that venue over Christmas, Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music both transferred into the West End, and last year, Sondheim’s latest musical, Road Show, received its London premiere at the Southwark venue. The director of the latest Sondheim show at the Menier, Merrily We Roll Along, is making her professional directorial debut with this production – no pressure there then. However, when the director is actress Maria Friedman, well known for appearing in numerous Sondheim musicals (winning the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical for Passion, and starring as Mary in a notable 1992 Leicester Haymarket production of Merrily We Roll Along), she obviously knows the material very well and creates a thought provoking and accomplished production.   

Merrily We Roll Along notoriously crashed disastrously on its Broadway opening 31 years ago, but has since been reclaimed as the treasure it surely is, winning the Olivier Award for Best New Musical in its first London outing at the Donmar Warehouse. It’s an intellectually challenging, grown-up musical; it looks at the human condition, and is ironic and poignant. At the beginning (i.e. the end), Merrily’s central character, Broadway composer Franklin Shephard, is at his most successful but has completely sold out and compromised both his ideals and his friendships for money and success in Hollywood. Frank is estranged from his lifelong friend Charley, the lyricist who co-wrote their successful Broadway shows, and also Mary, a writer who has been in love with him for years. Now descended into alcoholism, the opening scene at a party in Frank’s Californian beach house, sees the drunken end of his friendship with Mary. Merrily’s structure then works backwards in time, and a series of urgent choruses introduce the next section in years, giving the audience time to pause and refresh their thoughts before moving on to the next period of time. Different scenes focus on different points in the three characters’ lives between 1976 and 1957, ending (or beginning!) with the three meeting for the first time on a rooftop on 110th Street, New York, full of hope and ambition for the future. The audience, of course, knows poignantly how badly things are going to turn out.      

Friedman has taken the decision not to use visual techniques of disguise or make-up to make the characters look older/younger (although Charley’s wig changes and there are nods to changing fashions in the costumes). Instead she bookends the production with an image of its central character Frank, looking back, retracing his steps, giving the partial impression that the main content of the show has been a series of flashbacks during his life. Frank’s young son is also used for a few solo lines at the end, adding to this feeling.  The only downside to casting older, of course, is that you are not left with three youthful looking protagonists at the end, full of vulnerability and looking hopefully to the future, but by casting older actors Friedman no doubt gains a greater understanding of life experience and identification with characters. Certainly the performances are strong here, with Mark Umbers’ Frank a skilful portrayal of an often difficult character, a charismatic and attractive man who is quite toxic and unpleasant for most of the first half. This is sometimes underplayed in order to try to gain empathy with the character early on in the piece, but not so here, as Friedman ensures that the real toxicity of the characters at the start is quite clear. Regular Sondheimite Jenna Russell’s Mary is a loyal friend, and you break your heart as you gradually realise how much she is in love with Frank, a love that is never requited. And Damian Humbley (who I last saw in another Sondheim musical, last year’s wonderful Company in Sheffield) is a charming Charley, giving a very well executed rendition of his early solo ‘Franklin Shephard Inc’ which ends his own working relationship with Frank. 

It’s great to see a 9 piece band here too (under the baton of Catherine Jayes), using Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations – an unusually rich sound for a small space. The band are positioned in a space to the left of Soutra Gilmour’s predominantly white set, the whiteness reiterating the ‘clean sheet’ nature of the show. Gilmour makes flexible use of the space, with a ‘window’ at the back of the main wall adding to the element of ‘looking back’, and Friedman utilises the whole auditorium at various points, both for entrances and exits and for the sung musical interludes as the years move back. 

Sondheim has constantly reworked Merrily since its Broadway closure, working with book writer George Furth on productions in La Jolla in the States and on the aforementioned 1992 Leicester production. For this production, Friedman has asked him to change the beginning of the second half, where Josephina Gabrielle’s Gussie (married to Glyn Kerslake’s Joe, a producer) is appearing in Frank and Charley’s 1964 Broadway hit Musical Husbands. This number has been reconceived in order to emphasise just how big a hit the show is, and how successful Frank and Charley’s partnership was at that time. Musically, Merrily is such an interesting show, as we hear ‘snippets’ of songs like ‘Not A Day Goes By’ from Clare Foster’s Beth (devastatingly sung later in tandem with Russell’s Mary) before hearing the ‘full’ version later on, whereas parts of musical numbers are traditionally ‘reprised’ in shows where the action isn’t moving ‘backwards’. The ‘supporting’ cast plays a multitude of different characters and includes such experienced performers as Martin Callaghan, Amanda Minihan and a lovely Amy Ellen Richardson as the media interview KT.

So has Merrily finally found the production that will see it at last transfer into a larger West End house for an indefinite period? Only time will tell, although the Menier run has already been extended by 2 weeks until 9 March. Merrily’s only problem is – and always will be – that it is a grown up musical, about love, the human condition, about life and the choices we all make. Audiences respond differently depending on their age, life experience and their willingness to empathise with the material. You have to work at Merrily as it’s only in the second half that the characters become more likeable as they gradually get ‘younger’ and become struggling artists. But by then, of course, we already know that’s it’s all too late.