I’ve listened to songs from Merrily We Roll Along quite a bit. And, like a lot of Sondheim, I love it to pieces. But since no one ever seems to do it (because, as they always point out, it’s never before been much of a commercial success), I’ve only ever had a Wikipedia-style notion about how the show actually works.
T’other night changed that, as my other half and I made it to the local “Merrily On Screen” event, where our local movie theatre showed a performance recorded during the critically-acclaimed West End production which ran last year. I was chomping at the bit to see how Sondheim’s “told backwards” musical actually worked.
Talking about Sondheim shows is usually tricky for me. They are often … rough is probably the best word I have for it. Yes. They aren’t polished and gleaming and smooth. Which is not to say they are not compelling, because they are. In fact, the rough edges may be precisely why they tend to stick in my head and force me to turn them over and examine them. Shiny is pretty, but I don’t need to look at it too long. Rough is full of all those jagged little details that you only really see when you’re right up on a thing.
Merrily We Roll Along falls into that vein. It works backwards through the life of Franklin Shepard and his lifelong friends, Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn. Back from an endpoint which is uncomfortable at best, moving backward through key bits of lives which became very messy, to that moment when the trio first met.
It’s hard to properly organize my own thoughts on the piece. Which I suppose is appropriate, given the premise. Performances that wore on me in the beginning developed into something much different as the actors dialed backward through about two decades. Despite starting “at the end,” the show still has a lot to reveal as it moves backwards, though I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I felt like there were still chucks missing by the time I got all the way to the beginning.
Over and over, we watch the friends (usually instigated by Mary) pulling together in an assertion of their unique and lasting friendship, but most of the points we actually see of said friendship are when it’s threatened in one way or another: by egos, divorces, pregnancies, marriages, career pressures, broken promises. Even as we’re edging to the beginning, in “Opening Doors,” there’s a sense in that number that the friends are falling away from each other.
It feels, then, like seeing what these people were, when they were really that trio, gets sort of skipped over. But then I start looking at it again, and I remember: there, near the beginning of the show, as Mary Flynn sings about how she wants their friendship “Like It Was,” comes a line that might be there to warn me of exactly what I think fell through the cracks, as she sings “That’s what everyone does / Blames the way it is / On the way it was / On the way it never ever was.”
Is that what’s happening here? As we hop backwards, are we finding out that this friendship, these unique three folks bound together, are something else entirely? Are they just a construct they willed into their memories, until no amount of will could overcome the reality of their lives?
Then again, can there really be a moment that “makes” a friendship? That shows us these three people turning into a trio? Or can that only happen when you piece together the parts and see the fight to maintain it, see the regret when it’s lost?
You see? Rough and troubling, and damned if I don’t want to go see it again, or see one of the other versions of the show (it’s been re-tooled on multiple occasions), want to try to get ahold of all the pieces again and natter about them and make it all work.
All that, and I haven’t even talked about the specifics of this production, which are excellent. This is definitely a show that depends on its performers. The central trio of Mark Umbers (Frank), Jenna Russell (Mary), and Damian Humbley (Charley) do an amazing job of filling in all those gaps, intentional or un-. They manage to embody all that in-between which we can’t see in those moments that we can.
If I only get to see this one production, I’ll be quite happy with the quality of this one. But for all those rough edges that cry out for re-examining, I hope it’s not the last.