Hey, Old Friend

THEATER REVIEW: Merrily We Roll Along
Huntington Theatre, Boston, September 29, 2017

I know Merrily We Roll Along from its original 1981 cast album. That recording immortalized Merrily‘s 16 brief performances before Franklin Shepard and friends closed up shop. Like a few Sondheim shows that came before (looking at you, Anyone Can Whistle), that recording was so important for giving Merrily a life past its initial failure. 

FY18-MERRILY-BTSAnd that’s what it’s really about, isn’t it? Moving from disappointment to something brighter (of course, it happens in reverse). Seeing Maria Friedman’s production at the Huntington, I’m pleased to say the show works fine on stage. Every time Merrily reappears, critics seem to rediscover the show. But I bet it always worked once they got past that first production, with its young cast and cheap sets and costumes.

Watching Merrily live, I realized that moving backwards in time is really the reason it works. Look at Franklin Shepard when we meet him: he’s rich and miserable. His fancy Hollywood party is a complete bore. But we don’t need to care where he ended up; this is a look at where he came from, where we came from. As the years go by, everything feels more familiar in the audience. I know I started connecting with Frank and Charley and Mary in their early days: from getting that first big break to instantly bonding with friends in college and knowing we’d change the world.

The problem is, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth are more in tune with these young optimists than their disenchanted adult selves. Sondheim’s scene transitions only offer aphorisms that sound like fortune cookies (“Tend your dream. Dreams take time. Time goes by.”) And both authors (who must have made good money off Company) have a weird distaste with success. You can make money or art, but you’re not likely to make both. Sondheim clearly was working through some feelings about what art means, but he found more personal and substantial ways to say them in his next show, Sunday in the Park in George.

Sondheim gets closest in “Good Thing Going,” the song Frank and his writing partner Charley compose for their passion project. When Damien Humbley as Charley sings it at the Huntington, his rendition is simple and emotionally transparent. We see him identify him the lyric as he sings it, turning to look at Frank: “And while it’s going along, we took for granted some love will wear away.” We know—he doesn’t—how their partnership falls apart, just the way the song predicts. It was the highlight of the show for me.

Humbley’s Charley has a lot of love for Frank, and it’s heartbreaking to see—as we go back in time—that love strengthen in reverse. Beside him, Eden Espinoza is a strong Mary, who (despite an ugly wig) zeroes in on Mary’s heartbreak. She’s easily the most fun in the dark early scenes. That said, Mary doesn’t get enough exploration compared to the boys. She’s often a third wheel, defined primarily by her persistent pining for Frank.

Now, is Frank really a villain? He does cheat, and he repeatedly lets down Charley, shelving their dreams together time and time again. But when Frank options their musical for a big-budget movie, I wondered, why does Charley object to a big payday? Most writers would kill for an option. Should we admire Charley more because he’s a purist?

Frank is a complicated man, and Mark Umbers works hard to unravel him. Friedman’s brief outer frame—Frank contemplating the past—gives him some self-awareness, even if it’s too little, too late. He loses most people in his life, but he’s also surviving in a business that chews people up and spits them out. Umbers comes by Frank’s rich, brash side easily; maybe he’s even too insincere for too long. His first real glimpse into Frank’s subconscious, his solo “Growing Up,” is when Umbers started to suggest an inner life, and by the end, we finally meet a Frank genuinely interested in making something great.

In the last second, as Frank remembers his past before the lights dim, I thought: Maybe he’ll get a second chance after all. Maybe now could be his time again, coming through.

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