Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim’s, Harold Pinter Theatre

SOMETIMES the theatre-going public of the West End is fickle especially when it comes to musicals - a flop first time round sometimes happens.

And the blockbuster musical Chicago - which has enjoyed mammoth success recently in the West End and on tour - is just one that springs to mind.

It got the thumbs down big time on its first outing in 1979 only running for about 600 performances. It was revived on Broadway in 1996 and a year later in the West End where it ran for nearly 15 years becoming the longest-running American musical in West End history.

Merrily We Roll Along - although poles apart from Chicago in terms of scale and musical taste - falls into the ‘flop’ category with Broadway audiences not taking to it on its première in 1981. But revivals since then seemed to have fared better.

I originally saw Merrily at an ‘off’ theatre at London’s Bridewell Theatre (Fleet Street) years ago while London’s Donmar revived it in 2000 with Leicester’s Haymarket having their say in 1992.

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Now, thankfully, Merrily’s back in the West End running for a 12-week season at the Harold Pinter Theatre transferred from Southwark’s enterprising Menier Chocolate Factory.

Perhaps not so well known as some of Sondheim’s other musicals, this production - directed with verve, imagination and a touch of show-biz magic by Maria Friedman who, by the way, is making her directorial début - should alter that fact.

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Sondheim not only wrote the music but penned the lyrics too from a book by George Furth based on a play by Moss Hart and George Kaufman which starts in 1976 and ends in 1957. Over this period we’re invited into the frantic life of Hollywood producer Franklin Shepard (played by Mark Umbers) who ditches his musical talent and parts company with Charley Kringas (Damian Humbley) and Mary Flynn (Jenna Russell), a role played by Maria Friedman in the 1992 revival. This trio of performers were absolutely brilliant in their singing and stagecraft and the same can be said of the whole cast.

Sondheim certainly harbours an acidic wit which quite often bites to the core! Here’s a taster! ‘What comes first, the music or the lyrics?’ The answer: ‘The contract!’ A nice touch of Jewish humour!

The plot of Merrily is not that complicated and surrounds the failure of a professional creative partnership between a composer and a lyricist. And in an ironic twist the failure of its Broadway début put in serious jeopardy the partnership Sondheim enjoyed with the famous Broadway director, Hal Prince.

This deuce knocked out together such fabled musicals as Follies, A Little Night Music, Company and, perhaps, the most well known of all of Sondheim’s musicals, Sweeney Todd, recently seen in the West End with Michael Ball in the title-role and Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett.

Merrily has a host of good songs and the most memorable, I feel, are the delights of ‘Not A Day Goes By’ and ‘Our Time’ while the up-tempo numbers ‘Opening Doors’ and ‘Old Friends’ are not to be sneezed at.

But what happens on stage has to be driven by what happens in the pit and all credit must go to Catherine Jayes (music director) who brought out the richness and brightness of Sondheim’s masterful score with a group of nine stalwart players while managing to keep the balance between pit and stage at the correct level.

What more can I say apart from see the show while you can, it’s brilliant!

Box office: 0844 871 7622 or

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Tony Cooper

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