I’ve been told Sondheim musicals are a bit like marmite, you either love or hate them – I can’t say I fall into either of these camps. I’d only been exerted to a few of his works prior to seeing ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ during its west end transfer this summer. I rate ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Sweeney Todd’ as two of my favourite musicals; found parts of ‘Company’ a little drab (even though I enjoyed the general premise and do adore the song ‘Being Alive’) but firmly hated ‘Road Show’. Having heard the overwhelming praise for the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Merrily I decided to give it a chance.
Before reviewing the show itself, with the aim of transparency, I should perhaps set the context of my trip to the theatre. I’d (somewhat ironically) booked for the same day as one of the biggest job interviews of my life, it went ok, but not as well as I might have liked (needless to say I didn’t end up getting the position). I arrived at the theatre exhausted, with my mind naturally on other things. I’d like to think that this didn’t skew my opinion on the production, but since I have no parallel life I can’t be one hundred percent sure!
I couldn’t fault the cast, I was already aware of most of the leads having enjoyed their performances in previous roles: Jenna Russell (Into the Woods), Damian Humbley (Lend Me A Tenor), Mark Umbers (Sweet Charity), Clare Foster (Crazy For You) and Josefina Gabrielle (Sweet Charity & The King and I) definitely didn’t disappoint with their stellar efforts in this production. However, I didn’t connect with the show at all; I was bored rigid by the middle of act one to the extent that I spent the majority of act two watching Maria Friedman (director) sat in the circle bopping along (and I mean physically bopping) to her own show.
As a general premise, the plot follows the lives of various individuals, played out in a backwards sequence of sporadic pit stops in time. We see how their paths crossed, the decisions and mistakes they made, I suppose with the idea of evoking a ‘what if?’ question in the minds of the audience that translates to their own lives too.
I enjoyed the backwards concept, it was at least something different to your standard musical; but found the constant swap between going chronologically backwards, yet forward in time at each pit stop quite jarring. There was no flow. The plot was predictable, guessable from the word go.
Perhaps I’m too young to fully appreciate the themes that the show presents, at 22 I have my whole life in front of me. Only when we reached the characters time at university and the only memorable song ‘Our Time’ did I feel any degree of nostalgia or melancholy. I suppose this is backed up by the fact that my dad enjoyed it a whole lot more than me!
I do appreciate Sondheim’s intricacy with words, I generally find his lyrics intelligently witty, catchy and engaging. So I suppose my love-hate relationship with the work of Stephen Sondheim continues … I’ve not been put off … yet.