To paraphrase Julie Andrews, let’s start at the very end, a very good place to start. Composer Franklin Shepard is the toast of Hollywood, but the collateral damage of his meteoric rise is strewn around his gleaming Modernist apartment, in the physical form of his embittered, alcoholic friend and humiliated wife and in the whispers of estrangements from his writing partner and son and gradual exchange of artistic fulfilment for hollow commercial success. But how did we get here?
Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s tricksy reverse-chronological musical, adapted from George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s play of the same name, has had a similarly rocky ride. Its 1981 Broadway debut was a notorious flop, closing after just 16 performances, and there are some unresolved problems here (notably repetition of overstated themes in several overlong scenes). However, Maria Friedman’s electrifying revival, which began at the Menier Chocolate Factory, makes the cerebral spikiness accessible and reclaims the soul of the work.
Merrily We Roll Along may be inside baseball – a show about creating shows, with numerous in-jokes about writing and music, producers and agents, off-Broadway and on-, New York and LA – but its core messages are universal, from the importance of friendship to the precarious balancing of ambition and idealism. Yes, it’s a joy for industry buffs, but it’s equally compelling for anyone who has ever pursued a dream, suffered a broken heart or just worried about making rent.