The more musicals by Stephen Sondheim that I watch, the more my belief (that theatre shows us real life, more than real life itself), is reinforced.
Merrily We Roll Along has been playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London since November 2012 and I’ve just seen it. It tells the story of a composer (Frank) who turns to commercial producing, putting his own unique creativity at stake, along with his friendship and in the end his own grasp of life. The musical opens at his house in California in 1975 and then by the end of the musical, it is 1957 and he is on a rooftop with two friends on 110th Street, NYC.
It ends, therefore, at the beginning, when he, and his friends Mary and Charlie, are idealistic and full of hope. They have dreams that music and writing can change the world. By 1975, they are older – some of the dreams are shattered and some of the dreams have been reached but in ways that have distanced them and turned them from who they were – affecting their relationship with each other and with other people.
The three leads are played beautifully by Mark Umbers (Frank), Jenna Russell (Mary) and Damian Humbley (Charlie). Humbley remarks that essentially the musical is about compromise. We all compromise a little as we go down the road of life but it is like dominoes – one little one falls into another little one and it’s something that can become habit. It is not bad to compromise but it can also take its toll as the further you go down the road, the harder it is not to keep doing it and you realise what you stood for has been left behind.
I found the musical heartbreakingly honest since not only does Frank leave some of his dreams behind, he also leaves some of the special people in his life behind; people he genuinely loved and who loved him. And, what he ends up with, is not what he set out to achieve. Songs such as ‘Old Friends’, ‘Growing Up’, ‘Not a Day Goes By’ and ‘Our Time’ nail prefectly those moments in life that we all share, cherish, lose and sometimes regain.
If I had to recommend a show to see, to anyone, I would say this one. It reminds you of being alive (the name of another song by Sondheim from ‘Company’ – another great musical) and that, even with our best efforts, we will not always make the right choices – but is is always worth trying to make them, and trying to hold good friendships.