News Column

London 'Merrily' hits Houston movie theaters

October 19, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 19--Increasingly, worldwide cinema broadcasts are making the best theater and opera productions from New York and London available to audiences everywhere.

A prime example is the award-winning 2012 production of "Merrily We Roll Along," Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's bittersweet musical showing the corrosive effects time and necessity can have on our friendships and ideals. It screens Wednesday in cinemas across the United States, as the first show in CinemaLive and Digital Theatre's West End Theatre Series. The performance was recorded in London its limited engagement ended in July.

This production of "Merrily We Roll Along" originated at London's enterprising Menier Chocolate Factory, which in recent seasons has sent several of its shows to Broadway. Maria Friedman, one of British theater's top stars, made a notable directing debut with this show. Her Sondheim credits include starring in the U.K. premieres of "Passion" and "Sunday in the Park With George," as well as the lead female role in an earlier "Merrily We Roll Along" at Leicester Haymarket.

After its initial sold-out run, "Merrily" moved to London's West End, where it received more five-star reviews than any musical in West End history and won the Critics Circle Award as best musical.

The Independent called it "one of the great musical productions of this or any era."

The Daily Telegraph deemed it "hugely witty, tunefully inventive and brightly entertaining."

The Sunday Express found it "stunningly performed."

Sondheim himself is on record with this assessment: "Not only the best ("Merrily") I've seen, but one of those rare instances in which casting, direction and show come together in perfect combination, resulting in the classic ideal of the sum being greater than its parts."

This all-round triumph is a far cry from the show's original 1981 Broadway production, which drew mostly poor reviews and ran just two weeks.

Even then, just about everyone recognized the brilliance of Sondheim's score, one of his most beautiful -- with unforgettable highlights including the poignant ballad "Not a Day Goes By," the buoyant camaraderie of "Old Friends," and the soaring anthem "Our Time."

But despite much witty dialogue, Furth's unwieldy book was problematic. A messy, misconceived production only made matters more confusing. Even though the original was directed by Harold Prince, whose superb stagings had launched the previous five Sondheim musicals splendidly, this time he just couldn't find the right physical form in which to cast the material.

Much of the trouble stemmed from the format telling 20-plus years of story in reverse chronology -- a challenge inherited from the musical's source, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1934 play of the same title.

Sondheim and Furth kept the basic structure and themes, following three soulmate pals with careers in the arts from hopeful beginnings to disillusioned middle age. But they changed the names and specific arts disciplines of the three leads, as well as the time frame. The musical runs from 1980 back to 1957, rather than the original play's 1934 to 1916.

The musical centers on Franklin Shepard, who starts as a promising theater composer but sells out and winds up producing moneymaking movies he doesn't care about, betraying his two best friends in the process. Charley Kringas is his more artistically committed lyricist-collaborator -- until their collaboration and friendship are wrecked by Frank's increasing commercialism and egotism. Aspiring novelist Mary Flynn, lifelong friend of both, nursing an unrequited love for Frank, drowns her sorrows and her promising literary career in alcohol.

The show creates its resonant effect by depicting all this in reverse, starting with the midlife view of friendship and aspirations in tatters, gradually working back through key events, to the youthful moment when the three seal their new friendship with a vow never to betray their artistic ideals or each other.

The "merrily" of the title is ironic, see?

The musical's reclamation began almost immediately, with the release of the cast album. "On record 'Merrily' holds up so well," Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times, "that one is inclined to speculate the judgment against it will eventually be reversed."

Sondheim and Furth made changes through the years, beginning with the 1985 staging at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse, clarifying the book, dropping songs and adding others, notably the pivotal "Growing Up" for Frank.

The fine-tuning has resulted in increasingly favorable response from critics and audiences. Now comes this latest and most enthusiastically received London mounting -- starring Mark Umbers as Franklin, Damian Humbley as Charley and Jenna Russell as Mary.

No longer a stepchild in the imposing Sondheim canon, the musical that began life so bumpily is rolling merrily, at last.

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