The rocky origins of Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s infamous 1981 Broadway flop, is the stuff of showbiz legend. The musical—directed and produced by longtime Sondheim collaborator Hal Prince—shuttered after 44 grueling previews and only 16 regular performances.
The show takes place over the course of two decades and is presented backwards—something that confused audience members and critics alike. It tells the story of three close friends in the entertainment industry, and centers on Franklin Shepard, a Broadway composer who left his friends—and Broadway—and sold out to Hollywood.
Some critics saw promise in Merrily, but their praise wasn’t enough to withstand the toxic word of mouth that swirled around the show during the fall of 1981. “As we all should probably have learned by now,” wrote Frank Rich, “to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one’s heart broken at regular intervals.” (Figuratively speaking, this is still true today.)
The failure of Merrily was magnified by the quality of the shows that preceded it: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and—only two years before—Sweeney Todd. After a string of career-defining, historically important musicals, Sondheim took the defeat of Merrily relatively personally, and it took a few years to neutralize the sting. Also, tragically, it marked the end of the historic partnership between Sondheim and Hal Prince; it would be 22 years before they worked together again.
If you look at some of the themes present in Sondheim’s next musical, Sunday in the Park With George, which came three years after Merrily, you get a sense for the kinds of questions Sondheim may have been grappling with as a result of the flop.
But all was not lost. Thankfully, the brilliant score was preserved on the original cast album and spawned leagues of Merrily devotees. And, like several other Sondheim musicals, widespread appreciation came much later. Despite the strength of the score, though, the show still never really worked. It never found its way back to Broadway, and while an off-Broadway production that popped up in the mid-’90s earned respectful reviews, it mostly reassured everyone that, yes, Merrily We Roll Along is still problematic.
Then, in 2012, a revival directed by three-time Olivier Award-winning actress Maria Friedman opened at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory. The critics raved and the run sold out. The production, wrote Michael Billington of The Guardian, “makes you wonder how anyone could ever have doubted its quality.”
Sondheim himself chimed in, something he rarely does on productions of his own work. He raved: “This production of Merrily We Roll Along is not only the best I’ve seen, but one of those rare instances where casting, direction and show come together in perfect combination, resulting in the classic ideal of the sum being greater than the parts.”
In 2014, the show transferred to the West End, picked up a few Olivier Awards, and was filmed and shown in cinemas around the world. Now, we have the Huntington Theatre Company to thank for bringing this definitive production stateside.
Friedman has also brought with her two of the productions original stars, Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley. They join Eden Espinosa (Wicked and Brooklyn on Broadway) into addition to a bevy of Boston’s best: Jennifer Ellis, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Aimee Doherty, and Christopher Chew.
I sat down with Humbley in a dressing room at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, and there is no mistaking how thrilled he is to be able to take one more crack at Merrily We Roll Along.
“It’s a damn good production,” he said, “and being back in a rehearsal room with [Friedman] again is extraordinary. Especially this time around because we figured out a lot of it in London so now we can really delve into things.”
But just why is this production resonating when so many others have not? Humbley thinks that it comes down to two main things: timing, and Maria Friedman.
“When you start to analyze why art works, it’s almost like trying to quantify lightning in a bottle or trying to quantify magic,” he said. “The more I’m thinking about it, I’m coming to the idea that it’s just the right time. We are looking at ourselves. What are we doing with our lives? Who are we voting for? What are we paying for? There seems to be so much asking ‘why’ in regards to reflection in the world, maybe it’s just—no pun intended—our time.”
Friedman, Humbley says, who herself acted in a West End revival of the show over a decade ago, is a fabulous observer of human nature and has, miraculously, been able to find the balance in Merrily that, for so long, seemed elusive.
“It’s cynical and can therefore be a bit too earnest and indulgent,” said Humbley. “[Friedman] is very much of the frame of mind of keep the joy in it because the tragedy is written all over it. The show can tend to be—in another director’s hands—overly sentimental. And it’s not. The audience creates the sentimentality. This show is brilliant because it reminds you that you can only play what’s right in front of you, like in life.”
This is also an opportunity, all around, to strengthen what is already considered by many to be a perfect production.
“This is shaping up to be an extraordinary production,” gushed Humbley, “and that’s from someone who has done it before. It’s going to be something really special. Boston audiences are going to see Maria’s production, but they’re also going to see an evolution of Maria’s production. You give wine more years and it’ll get better. This is fine tuning. This is getting our masterpiece to a masterpiece’s level.”
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. THROUGH 10.15 AT HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY, 264 HUNTINGTON AVE., BOSTON. WWW.HUNTINGTONTHEATRE.ORG