“How did you get to be here? What was the moment?”
These are the questions Stephen Sondheim’s title song begs its audience to ponder in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “Merrily We Roll Along” (1981). The show tells the story of Frank, a Broadway composer-turned-film producer at the height of his career — and the culmination of his unhappiness — tracking how his life turned out this way, a story that starts at the ending and ends at the beginning. Director of New Work Charles Haugland said in an email that, in the musical, “the characters get happier as the audience gets sadder.” The concept of merrily rolling along suggests that we are unconsciously moving through life, and it is not until we are asked to stop and take a moment do we consider how we got to be here, and if here is truly where we want to be.
While a large portion of the story focuses on Frank’s failed marriages with Beth, his first wife, and Gussie, a Broadway star and his second wife, the heart of this story is about the friendship between Frank, Mary and Charley. Charley is a lyricist whose camaraderie with Frank is all about pursuing their dreams to create music that matters; as Frank says in the show, “musicals are a great way to state something important.” The audience roots for their artistic partnership, even though they watch it fall apart before they learn how it formed. Mary is a theater critic whose unrequited love for Frank keeps her believing in him — or the man he used to be. The song “Opening Doors,” sung towards the end of the show, paints a picture of these three artists trying to create despite the pressures of society, and even though we know how the story ends and the friendship is torn apart, it is art that brought them together in the first place, and we still cheer them on.
From the opening loud, jazzy notes of the overture, it is obvious that this is a Sondheim musical. The score is filled with traces of his brilliance, from blaring trumpets to soothing reed instruments, in music that pulses and pushes the story forward with its beats and rhythms. Each song is its own symphony; every chord blending together so seamlessly that it is challenging to pinpoint which individual sound belongs to which instrument.
The show effortlessly transitions to the past as the ensemble sings the recurring “Merrily We Roll Along” motif, changing set pieces and pausing to face the audience to ask questions. The ’70s costumes from the first scene are slowly replaced with ’60s attire as the show moves through time, incorporating the countdown of the years to arrive at the next scene. The transitions were brilliantly orchestrated, appearing natural to the viewer, tugging the audience back in time to follow the unfolding of the story.
The lighting design was another element that made the Huntington’s production of the show truly outstanding. The first set in Act I is in Frank’s beach house, which sits onstage glowing under natural, homey lighting. There is a staircase on stage right with spaces between the steps, creating strands of light like sunbeams that shine directly onto center stage. The first set in Act II is when Gussie performs in a theater, with glamorous red curtains as the backdrop and flashing lights surrounding the entire stage that illuminate Gussie’s star-studded life as a famed Broadway actress. The natural lighting of Act I is replaced with the artificial lighting of Act II, despite the fact that Act I is focused on Frank’s celebrity lifestyle and Act II shows us his humble beginnings. The lights are a reflection of Frank’s past, and a warning of the future life he thinks he wants.
The final scene of the show paints a picture of when the friendship is formed between Frank, Mary and Charley. Back in college, Frank and Charley stare up at the stars on a rooftop in New York City. Mary enters, introducing herself. The three sit along a bench, their backs huddling together reflected in the window that’s part of the backdrop of this set, creating a double image of the three friends to the audience held together by the sweetness of the New York night sky. It is sad, because the audience knows how the story ends, but it is happy, for the audience has finally arrived at the beginning.
Following the Saturday, Oct. 7 matinee performance, the Huntington Theatre held a post-show talk with Northeastern University Theatre Department Chair Scott Edmiston. Edmiston spoke with a member of the Huntington staff about the themes from “Merrily We Roll Along” and the musical’s unique journey since its debut in 1981. The original production was a total flop, with only 16 Broadway runs before closing. The show premiered at the tail end of Sondheim’s post-“Sweeney Todd” (1979) success. Part of the reason the show received so much immediate backlash was because of how established and accomplished Sondheim and Harold Prince — theater producer and former collaborator with Sondheim — had become. There were also problems with the original book written by George Furth, and the show went through many revisions to be what the current production is today.
Edmiston noted how art often mirrors life. The failure of the first “Merrily We Roll Along” production was when Sondheim and Prince split from being artistic collaborators, similarly to Frank and Charley. Sondheim’s partnership with James Lapine began shortly afterwards, and Lapine directed productions of “Merrily” in 1985 in San Diego and in 2012 at New York City Center. The 2012 cast included Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charley and Betsy Wolfe as Beth.
The show came to the Huntington this season after its wild success in London’s West End. Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley, who play Frank and Charley respectively, came from the cast of the West End production to recreate their roles here in Boston. Mary is played by Eden Espinosa, whose previous credits include “Wicked” (2003) and “Rent“ (1996) on Broadway, while 18 of the cast members are local Boston actors. The Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “Merrily We Roll Along” runs from Sept. 8 to Oct. 15, and it is a theatrical experience not to be missed.