After Merrily we roll along officially opened on Broadway in November 1981, it played 16 performances and then closed. Reviewing the production for the New York Times, Frank Rich labelled the show “a shambles”.
But in the four decades since its first outing, Merrily we roll along has gone on to earn cult favourite status. Film director Richard Linklater is set to direct a motion picture based on the musical, which will star Ben Platt and be filmed over the next 20 years.
Many local musical theatre fans are eagerly awaiting the upcoming professional revival of the musical at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co, which welcomes its first audience next Thursday 24 June.
The wait for the Sydney return of the classic show was extended by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the Hayes to cancel the originally planned 2020 season only a week before rehearsals began.
“It’s been such a build up to get here,” says Georgina Hopson, who plays Gussie in the new production. “It’s so nice to finally be here.”
With a book by George Furth and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Merrily we roll along is based on George S. Kaufman’s and Moss Hart’s 1934 play of the same name. It tells the story of three friends who are inspired to make their mark in musical theatre in America. But the story is told in reverse, introducing us to an accomplished Broadway composer-turned-Hollywood producer and ultimately revealing what his success has cost him.
Directed by Dean Bryant, choreographed by Andrew Hallsworth and with musical direction by Andrew Worboys, Merrily we roll along features a stellar cast including Elise McCann, Ainsley Melham, Andrew Coshan, Georgina Hopson, Aaron Tsindos, Tiarne Sue Yek, Evan Lever and Vidya Makan.
Hopson has long been familiar with Sondheim’s works and has performed in a number of them. However, she knew little about Merrily we roll along before being cast in the upcoming Hayes Theatre Co production.
“It’s been really amazing to delve into this world and to find out about it,” she tells Theatre People. Her education on the history of the show has included watching the 2016 Netflix documentary Best worst thing that ever could have happened, in which the original cast and crew reflect on their experience of putting together the first Broadway production.
Hopson believes Merrily we roll along is one of Sondheim’s finest works. So, what sets it apart? Hopson talks about the way in which the story is told in reverse (the reason for the upcoming two-decade film shoot), culminating with the main characters being depicted at their most youthful and hopeful.
“It’s something that, I think, resonates with everyone”, Hopson says, “whether you’re just starting out and you’re in that place at the moment, or whether you have some lived experience and you can remember being that young, energetic, full of vigour and passion and life … [when] the world is your oyster and you feel so creative …”
Asked what makes the work stand out from other Sondheim pieces, as well as its unusual structure, Aaron Tsindos talks about just how autobiographical the show feels at certain points.
“You see when this character is pitching a song to a producer and the producer’s giving him this feedback, and you can just tell that that’s feedback that Sondheim had when he was pitching a song to a producer,” Tsindos explains.
Is there a message that stands out for audiences to take away from seeing the show? For Tsindos, it provokes thought about the concepts of happiness and success.
“If you have success, is it harder to be happier? Is it harder to have happiness with success? That’s definitely the big message for me, is that question [about] success and how much you sacrifice of your personal life to become successful,” Tsindos says.
Hopson cites the message she takes away from Merrily we roll along as being the importance of friendship and integrity and remembering how success can change a person.
When it comes to a standout moment in the show, Hopson mentions the song ‘Opening doors’.
“I love it so much, it makes me really emotional because of the energy of the three main characters”, she says. “The sense of possibility, I think, is so real in that, and it really reminds me of having boundless amounts of energy when I was in my early twenties and the excitement that you feel … It never fails to make me feel something. It makes me feel joy and nostalgia and emotional in the best way.”
Talking about preparing to take the stage as Joe Josephson, Tsindos says, “I’m definitely more experienced on the acting side of things than the singing side. The most daunting part of this whole process really has been accurately learning the music because Sondheim has quite difficult harmonies or he has strange interval jumps.”
But he praises musical director Andrew Worboys who, he says, has been helping to make things much easier for him.
“Andrew Worboys said a really interesting thing,” Tsindos recalls.“He said, sometimes, the interval change becomes easier in the American accent with the vowel. Especially in this show, he said, Sondheim’s written in vowels to help with the tonal shift in the music, which I never thought of before, and I found that really helpful.”
Tsindos also speaks highly of director Dean Bryant, who has chalked up a string of hit productions at the Hayes. One of those hits was Sondheim’s own Assassins which, following a critically acclaimed season in 2017, went on to play a similarly successful encore at the Sydney Opera House Playhouse in 2018.
Discussing what Bryant brings to Merrily we roll along, Tsindos says his preparation has been “astounding”.
“He’s got a really clear vision of the show, which is always super-duper helpful as an actor. He’s really thought about how to make it work in the Hayes space with eight actors … and he’s really clear about what he wants.”
Hopson talks about how Bryant encourages cast members to bring their own choices to the table.
“He loves having an open discussion about the characters and the meanings and the themes and the stories,” she says. “What I love is that he really delves deep into it, and at the same time, he’s so clear with his vision and clear at communicating his vision, and so it’s a joy for us to be the vessels to bring that to life … I think he has such a nuanced and complex understanding of Sondheim’s work and of being a creator.”
Hopson strongly encourages theatre fans who’ve never seen a Sondheim show before to see Merrily we roll along at the Hayes.
“The magic of Sondheim lies in his deep understanding of the complexity of what it is to be a human, and I think we see that reflected in every show he does,” she says. “Everyone is so riddled with flaws … everyone is so human, and I think his lyrics are often so complex and yet so simple and they sum up the human experience so beautifully … And there will always be so much in it that will always leave you deep in thought and will leave things open to discussion and will spur further discussion, even though this piece was written, I think, in the late seventies … It still feels as relevant as it ever was.”
Tsindos sees the intimate Hayes Theatre auditorium as a huge positive of this production.
“I think that when you’re in the theatre at the Hayes, you’re so close to the action, you’re so close to the performers that you really feel engrossed in the story. I think this production, which is essentially about the Arts industry, gives people a really unique insight into the business and personal life cocktail of the entertainment industry. I think for people who aren’t familiar with the entertainment industry, it’s really insightful.
“I think the intimate nature of the space will really complement that storytelling.”
Rehearsal photo credit: Phil Erbacher
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Season: 24 June – 31 July 2021
Times: Mon 6.30pm, Tue-Sat 7.30pm, Thurs matinee 1pm, Sat matinee 2pm
Price: Tickets from $79-99
Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337