It was only a matter of time before Hayes Theater Co – the incredibly small space in Sydney dedicated to the importance of musicals – directed Merrily We Roll Along.
Famous flop Merrily has one of Stephen Sondheim’s most magnificent scores – more direct and pop influenced, full of ease without sacrificing intelligence – and since it has been extensively rewritten from his run Originally disastrous in 1981 (it closed after just 16 performances), the story contains much-needed clarity.
But it is still extremely difficult to achieve. The show doesn’t work if we don’t care about their characters – it’s essential that we believe in them and that their journey is believable.
That’s because this story – the story of Franklin (Andrew Coshan), Charley (Ainsley Melham) and Mary (Elise McCann) – goes back in time. The trio are close friends – or at least they were. We meet them in their forties, when Franklin – a Broadway songwriter turned Hollywood hit – is rich and famous, and ultimately unhappy. Her best friend Mary is drunk and caustic; their third musketeer and former Franklin musical collaborator, Charley, is nowhere to be found – the friendship is clearly over. Franklin’s life crumbles as the positive reviews arrive. It’s loneliness at the top.
It is well known by now that Merrily, after this first scene, begins to step back in time. We see the moment when Charley’s frustrations with Franklin boiled over and ended the friendship; we learn why Mary is so unhappy; we see friends losing their bond of love and with it their youthful optimism. We end, heartbreakingly, when friends are in their twenties, on the brink of adulthood. They only see blue skies. We have just experienced the wreck.
How do actors age before your eyes and still feel real? How does a director ensure that we always understand the progression of time and that the characters follow a steady journey that doesn’t seem overdone and overplayed? These two questions are even more critical at the Hayes, which has only 110 seats; there is nowhere to hide.
Enter director Dean Bryant, an artist who never chooses easy laughs and the show-driven approach to directing musicals. He relentlessly probes the character and the story to find the emotional truth of the scene, and it’s that focus on the complications of friendship, fame, and creative work – the tension of romantic relationships and the shattering depth. lost friendships – which makes the show feel like a success.
He takes his cast back in time with the necessary support (wigs, costume changes), but it’s the subtle changes embodied that make us believe it. (Choreographer Andrew Hallsworth is critical here: he finds a movement language for these characters that evolves in reverse; they open up and move more freely as they rejuvenate.) Music director Andrew Worboys does feel a group of five like an orchestra, giving the show a constant and driving source of life.
The set, by Jeremy Allen, offers a lot of dimension to the actors, but an additional video element (sometimes live), with screens mounted at the back of the stage, designed by David Bergman, more often takes the attention away from the production. that he does not add. This is a theatrical character study that does not need to be augmented or completed; screens make it even harder to sell a tough story and remind us how much we rely on the imagination.
Yet Merrily is a product of his time. We end at the dawn of the 1960s, so the critical scenes are based on political and cultural references fading from collective consciousness, and George Furth’s book doesn’t hold up as well as Sondheim’s music and lyrics.
But the biggest problem is Merrily’s treatment of his wives. Mary, Franklin Gussie’s second wife (Georgina Hopson), ingenuous Meg (Vidya Makan) and Franklin Beth’s first wife (Tiarne Sue Yek) are never in the service of men in history, their own views being played down by the book and the lyrics or worse, downright ignored. The sight is the cruelest for Mary, making her the butt of all jokes.
Bryant, to his credit, works hard to compensate for that direction, providing Beth, Gussie, Meg and most of all Mary with moments of dignity, complexity, and strength. Yek gives Beth the anger she needs (although the character is still painfully underdeveloped), and Makan’s supporting roles uplift the whole business. Hopson is glorious as Gussie, a camp portrayal of a making and undoing diva that comes close to caricature, but never becomes delightfully.
But it’s McCann who goes the furthest to solve Mary’s problem. Resisting the acting shortcut of performing simple anger, she associates her caustic comments with vulnerability and painful openness. McCann has always had a gift with lyrics, and Sondheim’s wordy lines feel natural, necessary in his mouth. Her voice is beautiful, malleable; if you listen carefully, you hear it rejuvenate like the characters do.
Still, Merrily cares about Franklin and Charley the most, and Bryant coaxes the entire series into something of a platonic love affair. Melham, a new leader on the biggest musical theater stages (Pippin, Aladdin) in Australia, gets better every time, and he’s remarkable here. He’s got the flashiest, flashiest number of the night – the Franklin Shepard, Inc patter song – and Melham enjoys every second of it, funny, dashing, and skillful. Coshan’s Franklin is the heart of the show and his steady performance sustains the action, but he’s at his best when he’s with Melham – the notes are held a little longer, the lyrics come out of the tongue more easily. He and Coshan light up, making the tragedy of their broken bond even more deeply felt.
Merrily only works if we care. This production ensures that we do.