CinemaLive and Digital Theatre kick off their West End Theatre Series, which makes productions from London’s West End available in cinemas worldwide, with Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along.
The story tells of a Broadway musical composer named Frank Shepard who gives up songwriting in favour of producing movies in Hollywood, deserting his two closest friends, Mary and Charley, along the way. In a novel twist, it’s told in reverse, beginning with Frank’s already-established Hollywood fame and leading us back to his beginnings as a composer and the trio’s friendship.
Opening in the UK from 24 October, it’s then set to appear in over 1,000 cinemas in 22 countries and subtitled in 6 languages. Yup, some feat!
It’s on the big screen for just ONE NIGHT ONLY! So, make sure you merrily roll on down to your nearest participating cinema or you’ll miss out on the production of a lifetime.
Flicks And The City attended the London premiere this week, and here’s why we think you should catch it while you can:
1. Stephen Sondheim rates it as the show’s best production EVER!
At its New York premiere, Stephen Sondheim, the musical’s composer and lyricist, declared this particular production, ‘the best I’ve seen’. And, bear in mind this is a musical that, in its 32-year history, has received more 5-star reviews than any other in the West End. So, what could be more a seal of approval than that?!
2. We’re treated to the very best performances
What we see on the silver screen is the production from start to finish but taken from three different performances over two days. Purists, however, need not be perturbed.
The slick editing and stellar performances ensure a smooth journey with the entire ensemble at the absolute top of their game for the whole two acts.
The singers’ pipes are flawless. Horn stabs and piano flurries effortlessly cling to expertly-delivered dialogue. And you’ll hear only the most enthusiastic of audience applause! But this is where the likeness with the theatre ends – without an end-of-intermission reminder bell, I almost missed the 2nd act’s opener. Some things are best kept to tradition!
3. Everyone’s got the best seat in the house
A cinematic touch applied to the traditional form of musical theatre here gives it a new depth. Camera pans and close-ups help capture the feeling or ambiance of a moment; whilst the cinema’s surround sound immerses you in the performance in a whole new way. There’s also no chance of spotting the top of the conductor’s head bobbing up and down from the orchestra pit!
Such reinvention works particularly well in Growing Up’s solo section sung by Josefina Gabrielle’s archetypal diva character, Gussie Carnegie. She dances and twirls around Frank, the show’s antihero, and his impending seduction is made all the more palpable.
4. The Three Amigos – Charley, Mary & Frank
The entire ensemble is incredibly well cast, but it’s the chemistry between the trio of Charley, Mary and Frank that hovers in your mind when you leave the theatre.
Damian Humbley’s Charley virtuosically tongue-twists his way through Franklin Shepard Inc and charms us with sardonic wit. Mary, played by Jenna Russell, is unforgettable as the drunken voice of clarity, offering sobering reminders through slurred words to her dear friend Frank. And Mark Umbers as our protagonist, Franklin Shepard, delivers a brilliant yet understated performance, making this antihero difficult to dislike.
Not to mention their ensemble moments! From their classic tearjerker, Old Friends, to their tightly choreographed and hilariously executed SNL-style comedy routine surrounding the topic of a certain presidential family – which, for spoiler reasons, shall remain nameless – you really mourn the split of this once-inseparable threesome.
5. The Moral of the Story
I’m gonna get all soppy here and end with the moral of the story because that’s what resonated the most with me throughout the show. In her introduction to this week’s premiere, director Maria Friedman emphasised that Sondheim and Furth’s focus in this musical is humanity and friendship.
And, of course, on the surface it’s about material “success” vs artistic “integrity”, but I’d go further and say it’s more about the changes, or lack thereof, in human beings. The beautiful tragedy and bleakness of this story is that, because it travels back in time, you know that at a certain point the characters cease to evolve and will continue to repeat past mistakes.
With just the right amount of comedic interruption, so we don’t over-dwell on such issues, Merrily We Roll Along is one of the most simultaneously poignant and affirmative musicals in West End history.
Even the cast sitting in the premiere crowd were applauding themselves in true musical-theatre style. And why not?! They sure deserve it.
So what are you waiting for? Go catch this musical from 24 October at a cinema near you!
(Photos copyright of Tristram Kenton)