Merrily We Roll Along at the Donmar

Thursday, 13 December, 2001

Written Music by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.
Directed: Michael Grandage
Starring: Daniel Evans, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro, Anna Francolini, James Millard, Grant Russell, Mary Stockley, Matt Blair, Lucy Bradshaw, Neil Gordon, Dean Hussain, David Lucas, Zehra Naqvi, Emma Jay Thomas, Shona White.
Story: Tells of a composer's descent from decent and virtuous youth to wayward and greedy middle-age. The show is given an extra twist by being told in reverse chronology. It is 1980. Hollywood producer and songwriter, Franklin Shepard, addresses the graduating class of his former high school. His world-weary advice provokes the students into presenting the cautionary tale of Franklin's extraordinary life and career. Together with his best friends, Mary and Charley, Franklin travels back to his own graduation in 1957.

Review by Carol Verburg

13th Dec 00

Stephen Sondheim took an idea from Harold Pinter's "Betrayal" in writing this musical comedy back to front:  We begin with the fabulously successful popular composer Franklin Shepard (another hommage?) giving the commencement address at his old high school.  The students sing the anthem Shepard wrote for his own commencement, and time begins rolling backward.  At a gala Hollywood party, at power lunches, then further back to events where the participants were still young, hopeful, and idealistic, we watch Shepard make the choices that have won him fame and fortune but cost him a string of broken marriages, partnerships, and hearts.  At each step, he yields to the temptation to make more money, achieve more popularity, even though he knows he is betraying his own dreams as well as those of his friends and family.  A joking remark early in the play suggests that ultimately, Shepard gets the worst of his Faustian bargain -- though he's lost his innocence and his ethics, his success won't last.  The plot, obviously, is a familiar one.  What's original and holds our interest is Sondheim's clever interweaving of story, characters, and music -- and the Donmar Warehouse's creative affection for his work, which they stage better than perhaps any other company.   All the songs are a pleasure to listen to; one of them is absolutely riveting.  In this intimate space, we are part of Franklin Shepard's circle of friends:  even though we know from the start who wins and loses, we're still fascinated to watch how it all came about.

Next Review by Tom Keatinge

March 01

Was Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, really going to be worth plaudits showered on the production at the recent Olivier Awards? Best Actor and Actress in a Musical as well as Best New Musical – heady stuff, particularly in the face of what has been viewed as a strong comeback by both Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh. And wasn’t this the Sondheim production that, on it is opening in 1981 on Broadway, was howled out of town by the critics, lasting a mere sixteen performances?

The story, told in reverse, is a trip down the memory lane of Franklin Shepard (Julian Ovenden) who has developed from cabaret composer, to feted film producer. The production cleverly links each episode in his life, showing effect followed by cause as Shepard moves from one life-changing event to another. Whilst Shepard is the true protagonist, he is also the vehicle for two tremendous, and ultimately Olivier Award winning performances by Samantha Spiro, the increasingly bitter and spurned critic Mary Flynn, and Shepard’s original musical partner Charley Kringas (played by Daniel Evans). Both characters become increasingly (or rather decreasingly given the direction of the piece) embittered as Shepard allows money and desires of the flesh to distract him from the aims that they both wish that he would follow.

We have come to expect strong, memorable music from Sondheim, and there is certainly no disappointment here, with the score providing both excellent tunes in Sondheim’s typically intelligent composition style. Furthermore, as with most Donmar productions, the staging is elegant in its simplicity – the music, acting and lighting need little set support.

This production at the Donmar Warehouse most certainly put the disappointments of 1981 behind it. A triumphant and entertaining production, slickly presented, that once again goes to show that the money and promotion of the blockbuster shows are no guarantee of success – musicals are about appealing music and intelligent lyrics. Once again, this David truly deserved victory over his Goliaths.

(Tom Keatinge)

A round up of the press notices by Darren Dalglish

This musical, which was savaged by critics and flopped(lasting only 16 performances) when it first opened on Broadway in the early 80s, has finally made its London premiere and has received good notices from the popular press .... NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says "It's the songs, with the acerbic vitality of words and music, that make the evening swing." THE DAILY MAIL says the production is, "outstandingly well choreographed" and describes the performances as "Stunning". THE DAILY TELEGRAPH liked the show, saying "Though there are patches of the tune-free dissonance that can make Sondheim a trial rather than a pleasure, there are several songs here that beautifully combine Sondheim's gift for wit, melody and melancholy." However, he did not think the show was anything special saying, "I don't think the show would be in anyone's Top 20 of all-time great musicals..." THE INDEPENDENT says, "This is a knock-out production." THE GUARDIAN, describes it as "a glorious show" and says "A famous Broadway flop is shown to be a work of emotional substance." THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "A total delight." And goes on to say, "Merrily We Roll Along displays all his(Sondheim) theatrical genius married to an attractive humanity." THE TIMES says, "A splendidly spirited cast." LISA MARTLAND for THE STAGE says, the show seemed "fragmented" with the result "that the pace is occasionally to slow.." However, she still thinks the show is a "fine production". JANE EDWARDES for TIME OUT says, "The real pleasure here, lies in Sondheim's yearning music and lyrics...and not in the somewhat tendentious plot that surrounds them". JOHN PETER for THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "Michael Grandage's production is warm-hearted, ironical, nimble on its feet and as bittersweet as the lyrics and the book."

(Production pictures provided by EPO)

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