The Sondheim Triptych continues at Melbourne Recital Centre.

The second show in Magnormos’ Sondheim Celebration is possibly the most well known of the three. Occasionally staged in Melbourne by amateur companies, the only professional season in memory was by Sydney Theatre Company in 1996 with a cast that boasted Tom Burlinson, Gina Riley, Peta Toppano, Genevieve Lemon and Tony Sheldon.
Renowned music theatre and cabaret performer, Shaun Murphy is directing the concert performance of Merrily, which is to be performed on 27 September. I caught up with Murphy to chat about the show and the progress of rehearsals with his fabulous cast.
A collaboration between theatre titans Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim, Merrily We Roll Along opened on Broadway in November 1981 and closed…in November 1981. “The show is plagued by a convoluted history that basically involved failure,” says Murphy. Part of the negative reaction of critics and theatregoers was the very young age of the cast of teenagers. “There is an irony there in that the original concept came from Judy Prince saying to (her husband) Hal to do a show about young people and hope.”
Murphy is confident that audiences will enjoy the music of this almost 30-year-old show. “It has an exciting score with a contemporary sound. The show was rewritten in 1994 and we will be using that version.”
The conceit of the show, perhaps too clever for regular theatregoers not knowing what to expect, is that the dramatic, bittersweet story of three friends is told in reverse. The story spans the 1970, 60s and 50s and the music reflects the different eras. “Sondheim had the ability, as with Assassins, to write each song in the style of the time frame. The score becomes more engaging as it progresses. The music becomes more accessible.” As with Saturday Night, Merrily will be performed acoustically, with a jazz quintet backing up the singers. The only staging element will be projections. “But,” says Murphy, “I am not being any more clever than displaying the year.”
I asked about running scenes in reverse order at rehearsals. “My original intention was to block scenes in the order the story happens but due to the availability of the cast that turned out not to be possible. Presenting a concert is challenging. At the end of the day my job is really about encouraging the actors, and the musicians, to find the heart in the piece. The direction of the show is affected by the clarity of decisions the actors make in rehearsal.”
The storytelling in reverse offers a unique insight. “The characters are somewhat dislikeable at the beginning, part of the Hollywood Showbiz world. As the piece progresses, the heart of the piece progresses and the audience comes to like the characters more. The audience sees the way the world shapes people and why they turn out like they do.”
Murphy further described the structure of the piece. “The show is bookended by a Prologue which is very Shakespearean. There are a series of Transitions, where the company are like a Greek Chorus.”
Having seen a production where all the cast had t-shirts stating their relationship to Franklin, I asked if Murphy had done anything like that to distinguish the characters. He was quick to explain that nothing like this was necessary. “The actors address the audience in the Prologue then assume their characters. I have encouraged a broadness of playing to delineate the characters. I certainly credit the public with enough intelligence to follow the story.”
The cast have to play their characters across a twenty year age range so Murphy went for a middle ground. “I wanted the cast’s age to hover around 30. People of that age can successfully traverse a wider age range.” 
Chris Parker in Crazy for You
And what a talented cast he has assembled. Husband and wife duo Chris Parker and Lisa-Marie Parker will make a rare combined appearance, playing characters that endure a bitter divorce. As Beth, Lisa-Marie will sing the haunting ‘Not a Day Goes By’. Murphy describes their involvement in the show: “Lisa and Chris are very professional, they talk about the work a great deal and are very committed. Chris is very right for the role. The baritone range of the songs suits his voice. He is sitting very comfortably in the seat of the role.”
Laura Fitzpatrick, recently seen in the Magnormos seasons of [title of show] will play Mary. Murphy is enthusiastic in his praise: “I am surprised she is not a bigger star in this country. She has a really big talent and an incredibly broad playing range. She has done well not to be typecast by her blonde and beautiful looks. You could hand her Medea and she could play it!”
Finally I asked Murphy if he had sung any of the songs from the show and I remembered the instant he mentioned it that Combo Fiasco had an early Sondheim medley that started with ‘Not a Day Goes By’. “It has been lovely to work on the show, learning the possibilities of the score. ‘Growing Up’ is a wonderful song and before this I was not really aware of it.”
Merrily We Roll Along plays at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Monday 27 September. See What’s On for further details.
Laura Fitzpatrick in [title of show]
 Here is the full cast list:
Franklin: Chris Parker
Mary: Laura Fitzpatrick
Charlie: Stephen Wheat
Beth: Lisa-Marie Parker
Gussie: Hester Van Der Vyver
Joe: Darren Natale
Franklin Jnr: Mitchell Roberts
Female Company: Phoebe Coupe, Angela Lumicisi, Emily Paddon-Brown, Helena Plazzer
Male Company: Jacob Cook, Joti Gore, Ben Hudson, Martin Lane