Merrily rolling backwards

Last week we went to the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Sondheim’s ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ which was – is – a brilliant realisation of a famously tricky bit of musical theatre. (It goes backwards: it begins in 1976 and goes back through time, scene by scene, to 1957 when the three main characters first meet.) An American friend tells me that Sondheim and others have been tinkering with it and revising it over the years since the notorious flop of the 1981 premiere, and there was a New York Encores production last winter that they were then calling the definitive revised version: maybe the Chocolate Factory’s production is based on that one. The Chocolate Factory does have a way with Sondheim and it seems they may have finally cracked the ‘Merrily’ curse. The run has just been extended for two weeks until 9 March: I recommend it unreservedly.

Not that it’s a barrel of laughs, you understand. It’s heart-breaking, in typical Sondheim fashion. But also brilliant. Prepare yourselves accordingly.

Anyway, I woke the next morning thinking of it as being a riff on the last line of ‘The Great Gatsby’: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” That’s such an American concern, isn’t it – and a larger human one for that matter. What a complete genius is Sondheim: I can’t think of another modern writer so good at the resonances of loss & regret in human lives. (Oh OK, I can if I try, and they all seem to be North Americans. John Updike. Edith Wharton. Willa Cather. Anne Tyler. Leonard Cohen. Etc.)

I do see that’s also what I’m doing with these retrospective blog posts – boats against the current; back into the past; all that. It’s an interesting exercise and I’m slightly sorry it’s almost over – there’s this one, and another I plan to write about the Leonard Cohen concert I went to in Paris at the end of September, and that’s more or less it. After that it’s all going to be forward! Forward! And anyway I don’t want to get too close to Wordsworth’s famous quote about poetry being the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility,’ if only because I don’t usually feel tranquil about the past, or about past emotions. (Interested, certainly: even retrospectively surprised: just not tranquil.) But I am enjoying this present process, so go figure.

Anyway, back to New York at the end of October, and emotions recollected against a satisfying background of uproar. We went to galleries and the theatre and the opera, and a concert on a barge in Brooklyn. We walked the High Line. I had my first encounter with a sbagliato cocktail. We caught up with old friends and met delightful new acquaintances (the sbagliato cocktail springs once more to mind in this category) and left regretting some of the things we hadn’t managed to fit in as much as treasuring the things we had, which I think is par for the New York experience – I always used to think I shouldn’t go to bed when I was in Manhattan because I’d always be missing something wonderful.

The best thing? Hard to choose, but probably ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ at the Met. Perfect, simply perfect. Worth the journey all by itself.

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