S&H Theatre Musical Review

SONDHEIM Merrily we roll along Michael Grandage (director) Gareth Valentine (musical director) Donmar Theatre, London 1 Dec 2000 - 3 March 2001

Kierkegaard - "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards" - is quoted in the programme for this unmissable revival of a show, for which recourse to New Grove 2nd Edition provides the date of its original production, telling us:

'Sondheim, Stephen (Joshua) (b New York, 22 March 1930). American composer and lyricist. Inescapable if contentious doyen of the American musical. Merrily We Roll Along (2, Furth, after Kaufman and M. Hart), orchd Tunick, Alvin, 16 Nov 1981 - - [incl. Good Thing Going, Not a Day Goes By, Old Friends]'

The book is by George Furth, and takes us backwards through a Faustian show-biz life story, which may or may not relate to the authors' early lives in the music business. The personable and versatile cast is first seen on stage in bright red undergraduate academic garb, conversing animatedly whilst the audience is coming in - setting the tone for what follows. A Mephistopheles impresario seduces the up-coming composer, Franklin, to postpone the shared desire to create something truly original with his young writer buddy Charlie, to the latter's foreboding. Marriages break up, and their best friend ends up a drunk. The show is framed with a successful but bruised, older and wiser Franklin returning to his alma mater to lecture the undergraduates rather sententiously on the theme of 'be true to yourself'. The scheme creaks somewhat and the backward presentation does not provide any blinding insights into a conventional tale of frustrated idealism and the sinister power of commercial reality.

For readers of Seen&Heard it is worth shouting from the rooftops that in Gareth Valentine (who studied with Sir Peter Pears at Aldeburgh and was repetiteur at the RCM Opera School) the company has a great conductor/pianist as musical director. It was hard to keep one's eyes off him and I would go to hear him conduct in any genre. Helped by three TV screens for visibility, he keeps a firm yet delicate grip on the proceedings with minimal finger gestures of one hand, whilst demonstrating real pianistic skill with the other. His ever-watchful restraint assured that the delivery of Sondheim's own lyrics took centre stage, and it was quite a surprise at the interval to see how many musicians emerged from behind their box. The full power of the ten-piece band was only unleashed in the second half at the 'premiere' of the show to which they had prostituted their 'genius', with the real, brassy sound of a big theatre musical - 'It's a hit'. The new reduced orchestration by Jonathan Tunick ('Broadway's premier orchestrator') was totally effective, and left one with the thought (not unusual after a good chamber ensemble contemporary music concert) 'who needs a symphony orchestra?' Unobtrusive 'sound design' (Fergus O'Hare) doubtless played its part.

Musicals are team efforts and this team worked well together under Michael Grandage's direction. The economical design in a restricted space was fine, enhanced by lighting, as was the choreography; everyone sang well and danced with a will, besides giving telling cameo characterisations of their many parts. All the songs were great, emerging appropriately in context of the swiftly moving action.

Recommended, and for high-class musical entertainment infinitely preferable to an extravagantly costly but lack-lustre operetta covered recently by Seen&Heard abroad.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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