The dazzling qualities of a Stephen Sondheim musical can make it difficult to feel something as simple as affection for them.
That said, I do have a bit of a soft spot for Merrily, the Broadway flop that throws a showbiz rags-to-riches story into reverse to examine the corrosive effects of fame on friendship, of commerce on art.
Merrily begins at a Nixon-era Hollywood shindig thrown in honour of composer Franklin Shepard, whose latest movie is just out. The champagne is flowing, the box office numbers from the East Coast are good and everyone wants a piece of this new hot property.
But for Charlie and Mary, Franklin’s long-time friends and creative associates, the party ended years ago. These days, the three can barely exchange pleasantries.
How did it come to this?
Like the mid-1930s Kaufman and Hart play it is based on, Merrily shows us how hope, talent and mutual admiration can curdle into enmity. But by doing it in reverse, it exposes the audience to a series of progressively more carefree snapshots of Franklin (Andrew Coshan), Charlie (Ainslie Melham) and Mary (Elise McCann) in more trusting, less risk-averse times. Merrily begins in despair and ends on a moment of limitless promise in 1957 with three students meeting on a roof to glimpse of Sputnik I arcing through the New York City night.
Directed by Dean Bryant and choreographed by Andrew Hallsworth, the potentially troublesome backwards shuffle is made persuasive and truthful, with the cast making subtle adjustments to their bearing and brightness as they regress in age. Melanie Liertz’s excellent costuming is a vital part of the de-ageing process.
The stage business is succinct and brisk. The singing is strong and the backstage band (under Andrew Worboys’ direction) is jazzy and tight.
Designer Jeremy Allen’s wood-panelled set – excellent in evoking the 1970s – is handsome and versatile. The use of video cameras and live and pre-recorded projection (created by David Bergman) is clever without being distracting or seeming gimmicky.
Coshan performs the youngering trick very deftly. You almost want the show to start again so you can more appreciate the contrast between the hollowed-out Franklin of the opening scene and the wide-eyed kid searching for Sputnik.
Melham all but steals the show as Charlie, shining furiously in Sondheim’s gymnastic Franklin Shepard, Inc. McCann’s superior acting and singing brings Mary’s reverseroo from alcoholic has-been to whip-smart wannabe into sharp focus.
Tiarne Sue Yek finds some emotional toeholds in the somewhat sketchy, slightly saccharine role of Beth (Franklin’s first wife). Georgina Hopson sings and shimmies up a storm as Franklin’s showboating second wife Gussie.
Merrily is as cynical as it is smart. You can see why the fun-seeking Broadway audience didn’t take to it first time around. But coming after our long lockdown, the hopeful note it strikes at the end proves very winning. A show of its time, for sure, but also one that is a tonic in this moment.