I passionately believe that Merrily We Roll Along is the best musical in the world and I am rarely left unmoved by a Stephen Sondheim lyric. Was it wise then, to choose to go to an amateur production of the same? Well, I think so. This production was courtesy of the National Youth Music Theatre and, like many things that I have seen recently that have either been created or performed by a younger generation, I was moved and energised by their commitment, power and talent.
Merrily We Roll Along follows the lives of three close friends, Franklin Shepard, Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn, from 1958 to 1980. Young, ambitious and passionate, they are respectively composer, playwright and writer eager for creative success.
Sondheim, famous for his nostalgic perspective, starts the narrative in 1980 as the middle-aged composer Shepard celebrates another success with the Hollywood elite. Surrounded by vapid influencers and the glitterati but few close friends, he is on the edge of a second divorce having had an affair with his latest leading lady. A member of the group refers to the New York playwright Charley Kringas who is tipped to win the Pulitzer prize and is immediately hushed. No one must mention Kringas in front of Shepard.
We then travel back in time as the chorus counts the years away, stopping at key moments in the lives of the three friends to reflect: was this the moment? The moment our lives made an irrevocable change? When was the point of no return? The show ends at the point the three friends first meet.
The new Elephant venue at the Southwark Playhouse isn’t the largest of performance spaces and so when the trumpets blasted out the start of the overture at the beginning I did wonder where they were hidden. In many a cupboard and on high level seating it turns out. The whole cast dance in and out of the aisles to amass on stage for group numbers and their vocal quality is breathtakingly powerful. Some of the acting doesn’t quite match the quality of the singing but those in the major roles are very, very good: Toby Owers as Shepard and Thomas Oxley as Kringas are confident, nuanced and moving, but particular mention has to go to Madeleine Morgan as Mary Flynn. She has the biggest trajectory of development and her transition from old to new, quality of performance and singing was spellbinding. And as I type this I have to remind myself this was an amateur production because it rarely felt like it. The moments that the three friends have the stage to themselves are very special indeed and define the show.
It’s a Sondheim production and so is all about the music. Many of the songs are repeated but given different emphases to reflect the backward structure of the piece and their changing relevance to the characters at different ages. A number of them are famous enough for me to wonder if this company would do them justice. How wrong was I? In this production the music is a joy. Eleven musicians are listed in the programme and as they came on stage at the end to take their much deserved bow I was shocked to see how young many of them were.
The maximum age of a NYMT performer is 23 and they would have had minimum time to rehearse as a company. What potential they have. I can barely imagine what they are capable of achieving in the future.
Music & Lyrics by: Stephen Sondheim
Book by: George Firth
Directed by: Katherine Hare
Musical Direction by: Leigh Thompson
Choreography by: Julia Cave
Produced by: National Youth Music Theatre
Merrily We Roll Along plays at Southwark Playhouse Elephant until 26 August. Further information and bookings here.