There are two kinds of people that buy tickets to Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along: either they can recite the musical’s lyrics by heart, or they have never heard of it. Either way, this flawed diamond by Sondheim and George Furth that was a musical flop in 1981 strikes close to home for many in the theatre profession.
This August, JYM Theatre Company take the reins in a season of this acclaimed theatrical work with the help a passionate cast. The story of three friends (creative types) tells of them wanting to change the world but face up to the delusion of middle age. The premise might sound complex enough, but add in the plot device that bares the emotional history of Frank Shephard’s professional rise and personal fall in a reverse chronological order, and you have one incredibly courageous production.
“The reverse chronology takes some getting used to, but it’s very well signposted,” explains Patrick Hill, who will be playing the sanguine young composer lead of Franklin Shephard. “Jumping years at a time proves a wonderful quandary. What happened in the intervening years?”
“We (can then) ask, ‘How did you get to be here?”
“There are definite markers locating the story in time. Without them, the reverse chronology would be… incomprehensible! At the same time, questions of hindsight, friendship, and hope for the future are as relevant now as they ever were, as they ever will be.”
Reverse chronology is possibly the heaviest form of dramatic irony and together with Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’; ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ is two of the most renowned theatrical works to use this reverse chronological order. The audience knows the agonizing truth about what is going to happen because they have already seen it. It then makes for an almost unbearably poignant ending; because all of the hopes and dreams are just lining up to be inevitably dashed.
Rather than seeing the characters’ future in the show’s immediate past, Merrily We Roll Along forces the audience to be aware of the naivety of the characters’ young values from the beginning. The story becomes not of ideals crushed but of illusions dissed.
In this sense, it is a wonder how a show so astute in Furth’s writings could have originally crashed and burned on Broadway.
An image from a recent revival of Merrily We Roll Along, photography credit to broadway.com
While Sondheim and Furth’s vision of the truth of youth may appear to be relatively simple, Merrily We Roll Along is concurrently timeless and its book masterful in its description of the nuances of friendship.
“Like most people, I have had many friendships and relationships in the past,” waxes Jonathan Goldberg who plays Charley in Merrily. “Some fleeting, some deep connections, some based on experiences, some on emotions, some on similarities and some on differences. This show exemplifies all of these aspects in relationships. “
“I believe it is this self-reflection that enables the characters to come to life and helps the audience identify with each character on an individual level. My hope is that our portrayal of our individual characters and all of the relationships will leave the audience reflecting on their own lives and actions.”
The timeline that circles a hedonistic Hollywood showbiz party in 1976 to the meeting of the friends in 1957 heightens emotions and unravels the artistic and personal compromises along the way. For Patrick, the role hits close to home, “Life is so busy. What choices have I made that will have far-reaching consequences on my friends?”
Directed by Pip Mushin, JYM’s leading cast is rounded out by Stephanie John as Mary. Other cast members include Jen Bush, Liana Brener, Nick Backstrom, Rachel Tigel and Talia Zyngier.
It will be the first time for Hill playing this role, who has always been a fan of the show. “(Director) Pip contacted me asking if I’d be interested in auditioning for Frank. I love Merrily We Roll Along, but have never seen it live. How could I refuse?”
The Sondheim musical will also be Goldberg’s first foray into Merrily We Roll Along. Having never seen or heard music from it before, he welcomes the challenge of going into the show with no previous knowledge or thoughts on how his role should be played. “I have no frame of reference with which to compare,” he says, but “as with any show, I find it ‘becomes your own’ simply developing it from scratch… (and) allowing each character to develop through the wonderful dialogue as well as the relationships.”
“I love Sondheim’s musicals; the challenging, witty lyrics and complex music, the emotion, the fact that not one word is wasted,” commends Goldberg. “And especially the song “Franklin Shepard Inc.” – the moment I heard this song, I knew I wanted to perform it on stage. It never occurred to me just how difficult it was going to be!”
If the music of Sondheim throughout Merrily We Roll Along is not enough of a pull factor for an audience, the story will promise a thrilling evening of musical theatre and essential viewing for anyone who has ever looked at their life and wondered: ‘How did I get here?’
JYM Theatre Company’s Merrily We Roll Along runs from August 23 to September 5 with previews starting August 22. More information about tickets and the show can be found at www.jymtheatre.com