Its life began on Broadway in November, 1981. And now Merrily we roll along is about to return to the stage in Sydney, courtesy of the team at the Riverside Lyric Ensemble.

Merrily we roll along is the story of an accomplished but jaded composer, Franklin Shepard. Shepard’s story is told in reverse, beginning with his successes before delving further back in time to his early days as a bright, young, talented songwriter who, along with friends Charley and Mary, tries to conquer the world. It’s a cautionary tale that reminds us that dreams don’t always come true and of the transformative effect fame and success can have.

It’s a show that’s arguably more infamous than it is famous, having closed on Broadway after just 52 previews and 16 performances. But director, Craig Stewart, has no shortage of affection for the Stephen Sondheim and George Furth collaboration. He first became acquainted with the work around the age of 15. “I’ve pretty much loved the show since then,” he tells Theatre People. “I think it’s the most universal of Sondheim’s shows…Everyone, as an adult, knows what it feels like to think they’re going to do one thing with their life and then do another…How you deal with that is what makes you a success.”

And while those reminders prominently feature in Merrily we roll along, Stewart also opines that the show is Sondheim’s most “hopeful” piece. “You can look at the show and think, ‘What can I do in my life to stop that happening?’” he says.

A self-confessed musical theatre nerd, Stewart attributes his passion for the genre to his parents, who exposed him to a wealth of musical theatre from an early age. “I’ve always really loved musicals. My parents took me for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I did my first show when I was 11, which was The King and I.”

As he grew older, he became familiar with a variety of Sondheim’s works and, when given a chance to direct with the Riverside Lyric Ensemble this year and select a work, Merrily we roll along was the show Stewart was passionate about bringing back to the stage. Doing so has given him the opportunity to endeavour to improve upon the original staging in line with the retrospective thoughts of legendary director, Hal Prince, who helmed the 1981 Broadway production. “The problem was they made the show too big and too complicated,” Stewart says. “[Prince] wanted to do it again and keep it really simple.

“Everything about the show is complicated, and what we’ve done for the staging is try to really simplify it by having as little physical set as possible…The way that we’ve chosen to stage the show is really simple.”

But Stewart admits the simplified staging has created new challenges for the performers. “It’s made things really complicated for the cast because they have to really embody the story themselves and can’t rely on costumes or props.”

And if there ever was a cast up to that challenge, Stewart is convinced he’s found the right company. “The cast is exceptional,” he tells Theatre People. Comprising six lead performers and 12 ensemble members, the Riverside cast features several actors with an array of impressive professional credits under their belts.

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Merrily we roll along at Riverside Theatres Photo courtesy of Pedro Diegues

It’s been six years since Stewart last worked with Riverside, but he speaks highly of their involvement throughout the process. “The Riverside Committee is really supportive,” he says. “They’re really great to work with.” Orchestrations have been created by Jonathan Tunick, who Stewart credits with bringing the production to a high level despite a truncated rehearsal period.

As Friday’s opening night performance rapidly approaches, Stewart is confident attendees are in for a memorable theatrical experience. “First and foremost, it’s a brilliant show…Sondheim kind of is the musical theatre version of Chekov…[And] the show is so rarely performed. The last time we know it was done in Sydney was about nine years ago.”

Add to the mix a high calibre cast, and Riverside’s Merrily we roll along sounds like a stellar option for this weekend’s theatre outing should you be fortunate enough to find yourself in the greater Sydney area.

Dates and times:

Friday 10 July 8pm

Saturday 11 July 2pm & 8pm

Sunday 12 July 2pm

Wednesday 15 July 8pm

Friday 17 July 8pm

Saturday 18 July 2pm & 8pm

Venue: Riverside Theatres, CNR Church and Market Streets, Parramatta

Tickets can be purchased here.