A unique opportunity to see a piece of the recent London theater scene arrived in San Francisco, and in cities across the country, this past week. Digital Theatre, an organization that's been partnering with British theater companies to capture performances in HD video, partnered with CinemaLive on this first-of-its-kind beaming of a production from across the pond, albeit a couple months after it closed, and this was a new, highly acclaimed production was Stephen Sondheim's often maligned, but under-appreciated musical Merrily We Roll Along.
The production came first out of the Menier Chocolate Factory in London in the fall of 2012 and moved to the West End, to the Harold Pinter Theatre, in April 2013. It closed in July after receiving more 5-star raves than, supposedly, any production in the West End's history, and Sondheim himself said it was "not only the best [production of Merrily] I've seen, but one of those rare instances where casting, direction and show come together in perfect combination, resulting in the classic ideal of the sum being greater than the parts."
Just to back up for a second, Merrily We Roll Along originally premiered on Broadway in 1981, with a book by George Furth based on a Kauffman & Hart play from the 30s, and music and lyrics by Sondheim. While the score was praised from the outset, various factors caused the thing to flop a confusing book, a cast that was arguably too young, and a glut of characters whom the audience couldn't keep straight, resulting, famously, in all of them wearing t-shirts on stage with their characters' names on them. Furth and Sondheim tried reworking the show in the early 90s in a production outside of London, and it was there that director Maria Friedman (at the time an actress) fell in love with the show. She returned to it, with a cast of London theater names all approaching middle age, and the alchemy of this cast, Friedman's direction, and a finely honed version of the show is magical.
The story of Merrily is about friendship and the struggles of success in show business, and maintaining integrity as a creative person. It's also about aging, and touches on themes of alcoholism, divorce, growing apart, and unrequited love. The play opens in 1976, when central characters Frank Shepard and Mary Flynn are both 40 years old and at a party in Los Angeles celebrating Frank's latest movie he's now a commercially successful producer, though he started as a composer. The story of their tight three-way friendship with lyricist and writer Charley Kringas is then told in vignettes, backwards, to the year they all met, in 1957. It was with these things in mind that Friedman chose to cast mostly older people, and people who knew each other well enough from years together in theater that acting like old friends on stage came easily. The chemistry is palpable in every scene, and as actress Josefina Gabrielle says in the behind-the-scenes footage, "It was just a love fest, every day," for the whole cast.
As Mary, Jenna Russell shines, portraying a writer with a growing alcohol problem who published one bestselling book and then faltered. Russell won raves in 2008 in a revival of Sunday in the Park With George, for which she was nominated for a Tony after it transferred to Broadway, and she's one of many in the cast who seem as in love with the songs they get to sing as she is immersed in her character.
The handsome Mark Umbers does a fantastic job as Frank, painting him as the slightly greedy, tormented, philandering man he becomes and still managing to make the character likable by the close of the show, when we see him starry-eyed at age 20. Damian Humbly is also marvelous and endearing as Charley, and does a moving, lovely performance of the song "Good Thing Going" that comes in the second half of the show. And as Broadway diva turned scorned wife Gussie, the glamorous Ms. Gabrielle is perfectly cast.
Not having seen any earlier production of the show, it's hard for us to pinpoint what this production gets so right that no (or few) others have managed to. It has something to do with the love you can sense between the people on stage, and if a Broadway transfer is in the works we hope that can be replicated with a presumably somewhat different cast. In any event, if there is another opportunity to see the recording of this cast, you should. The work of Digital Theatre to bring audiences a view into the London theater without having to fly there and spend hundreds of dollars on tickets is a noble one.
And next up, via Digital Theatre and Fathom Events, on December 11, you can see the recent West End production of Noel Coward's Private Lives, starring Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens. Tickets for that screening will go on sale November 7. There is also a plan to screen the Open Air Theatre production of Sondheim's Into the Woods, which was performed in Regent's Park, London in 2010, but no screening date for that has been set.