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The Wall Street Journal reviews Merrily We Roll Along

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Merrily We Roll Along
  Review: Fixing Sondheim’s Famous Flop

A new production elevates the work, which runs backward in time and looks at an artistic sellout.

Mark Umbers, Eden Espinosa, and Damian Humbley in ‘Merrily We Roll Along’
Mark Umbers, Eden Espinosa, and Damian Humbley PHOTO: T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim’s biggest flop, closed on Broadway in 1981 after just 16 performances. Several valiant attempts to resuscitate the show have since been undertaken, and the revised version that Eric Schaeffer directed in 2007 at Arlington, Va.’s Signature Theatre proved that Merrily can be made to work. I haven’t reviewed it since then, though, so I went up to Boston to check out the U.S. transfer of Maria Friedman’s 2012 London revival, which Mr. Sondheim himself calls “the best I’ve seen.” Far be it from me to disagree: This is certainly the best Merrily I’ve seen, a staging so clear and confident that you’ll go home from the theatre wondering why the new version has yet to make it to Broadway.

Like the 1934 George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play from which it was adapted, Merrily We Roll Along, written in collaboration with George Furth, runs backward in time. It starts by showing us the empty triumph of Franklin Shepard (Mark Umbers), a talented songwriter who gives up music to become a movie producer. Then the calendar is flipped back year by year so that we can watch him sell his soul on the installment plan. A dark tale of disillusion that was too bitter for Broadway in 1981, Merrily rings truer today, and this new version, extensively revised by Messrs. Sondheim and Furth, fully engages the audience in the plight of Franklin and the idealistic friends ( Damian Humbley and Eden Espinosa ) whom he jettisons as he slithers up the greasy pole. As for the score, which includes “Good Thing Going” and “Not a Day Goes By,” it’s straight out of Mr. Sondheim’s top drawer.

 

Damian Humbley, Mark Umbers and Rebecca Gibel
Damian Humbley, Mark Umbers and Rebecca Gibel PHOTO: T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Ms. Friedman, a British musical-comedy star, was immensely appealing in the 2005 Broadway transfer of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White. The original 2012 London production of Merrily, however, was the first show she ever directed. She’s since staged two more musicals, and if this one is a fair indication of her gifts, I expect she’ll be back on Broadway before you know it. So, I hope, will Merrily We Roll Along. It belongs there, and Ms. Friedman’s version would be an ideal way to get it there.

— Terry Teachout


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