Theater & dance

It took years, but Sondheim’s ‘Merrily’ is on a roll

From left: Eden Espinosa, Mark Umbers, and Damian Humbley in the seats at the Huntington Theatre where they will perform in the musical “Merrily We Roll Along.”

Justin Saglio for The Boston Globe

From left: Eden Espinosa, Mark Umbers, and Damian Humbley in the seats at the Huntington Theatre where they will perform in the musical “Merrily We Roll Along.”

They can’t all work the first time around.

“Merrily We Roll Along” was a famous flop when it bowed on Broadway in 1981, lasting just 16 performances after 52 previews failed to whip the ambitious show into shape. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by George Furth, it came on the heels of Sondheim’s great success with “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” making its failure all the more jarring.

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But a funny thing happened on the way to theatrical infamy.

Sondheim and Furth got together to create a heavily revised version of the show for a 1992 production in out-of-the-way Leicester, England. Twenty years after that, a cast member from that 1992 version directed a freshly conceived take on the show, almost by accident, that became a roaring success on the West End.

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Now, that director has brought much of the key personnel from her well-received staging to Boston, for a production at Huntington Theatre Company that begins performances on Friday. For each of the past three years, the Huntington has opened its season with a Sondheim musical.

“Merrily We Roll Along” is the story of three friends: Frank, a successful film producer; Mary, a theater critic; and Charley, a lyricist and Frank’s former writing partner from before he moved from Broadway to Hollywood. Based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the musical starts at the end of the story and then moves backward through time.

Further complicating things for audiences in the 1981 production was Sondheim’s insistence on casting very young actors, in most cases teenagers. The move put an exclamation point on the show’s dramatic irony but proved confusing, to the extent that actors actually wore name tags identifying each character.

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Casting conceits notwithstanding, the show offers plenty for audiences to relate to.

“I think it’s a great examination of how it’s very easy to not take care of the very simple things that matter — that the outside world can sort of hook you and grab you away from simple relationships, loyalty, honesty,” says director Maria Friedman. “All those things that should be so easy are looked at, and we see how precious they are if you let them go.”

Friedman played Mary in that 1992 production, with Sondheim and Furth very much a part of the rehearsal process. An acclaimed actress with lots of experience in Sondheim shows, she selected “Merrily” when she was offered the chance years later to direct some London theater students in a show of her choice. It was her first time ever directing, so she wanted something familiar.

It was meant to be a no-profile production, done just as a learning exercise, but evolved into much more. When showtime came, Friedman was surprised to see some strangers in the audience, who turned out to be professional theater people who’d been tipped off by one of Friedman’s longtime collaborators that she was onto something special.

“Without anybody asking me, very naughtily, they snuck in,” Friedman recalls. “I was quite cross they were there because I thought: What terrible pressure for these second-year students who were told it would be a no-pressure situation.”

The production seemed to click, and Friedman was offered a chance to direct the show at Menier Chocolate Factory in London. From there it transferred to the West End and won the Olivier Award for best musical. Sondheim himself proclaimed it the best version of the show he’d seen.

Friedman made the key decision to cast older actors in the roles. Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley, who played Frank and Charley in London, reprise their roles for Boston. They’re joined by Eden Espinosa (“Wicked” and “Brooklyn” on Broadway) as Mary, and a supporting cast of Boston all-stars including Aimee Doherty and Jennifer Ellis. (Choreographer Tim Jackson and costume designer Soutra Gilmour are also on board from the London version.)

Besides the typical intricacy of Sondheim’s score, the roles present big challenges to the lead actors. They first appear to the audience as sadly cynical and world-weary, and by the end of the show are embodying their characters as wide-eyed and optimistic. Espinosa notes the difficulty of portraying someone in reverse chronology.

“Every scene we do, you have to let that one go and reset for the next one. You can’t carry what you do at the top of the show into the next scene like you would in a normal arc. We’re doing the opposite — we’re carrying all of this at the top and then each scene we shear a little bit off.”

Umbers says the show’s unusual structure alters his relationship with the audience on a given night.

“There’s a really strange disconnect between cast and audience, because they’re with you but they’re observing you,” he says. “When you’re onstage, the vocal audience reaction you hear isn’t [because of] what you’re trying to lead them into doing, it’s all from the dramatic irony. They’re always half a meter away from you. But it’s really liberating because you sort of have to forget that they’re there, because they’re always on the opposite journey to you.”

Narrative legerdemain aside, the show makes some potently simple observations about growing up and growing old(er).

“It’s very funny. It’s very sad,” Friedman says. “And at the end, I feel like I need to phone my friends up and make sure everything’s OK.”

MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG

Presented by Huntington Theatre Company

At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Sept. 8-Oct. 15. Tickets: From $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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