As previously tipped (See The Goss, 7 Jun 2007), following his West End and Broadway success with Sweeney Todd, director John Doyle will return to the Watermill Theatre, where the Tony and Award-winning production began, to direct another actor-musician revival of another Stephen Sondheim classic, Merrily We Roll Along. The new production will run at the 220-seater in Newbury, Berkshire from 21 January (previews from 16 January) to 8 March 2008.

Starting in 1980, Merrily We Roll Along tells the story of a celebrated songwriter and film producer, Franklin Shepard. Presented in reverse chronological order, the musical follows Shepard's descent from idealistic youth into wayward and greedy middle age, while also chronicling the dissolution of his showbiz friendships. The score includes "Not a Day Goes By", "Our Time" and "Old Friends".

Inspired by a 1934 play by George S Kaufman and Moss Hart, Merrily We Roll Along has music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by George Furth. When the musical opened on Broadway in 1981, it was savaged by critics and closed after a matter of weeks. Since then, it has been reclaimed as a classic.

Following its London premiere at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1983, Merrily We Roll Along received a high-profile regional outing, starring Maria Friedman, at the Leicester Haymarket in 1992. It had its West End premiere in 2000 at the Donmar Warehouse (See News, 11 Dec 2000), where Michael Grandage directed and Daniel Evans, Samantha Spiro and Julian Ovenden starred. The production went on to win three Laurence Olivier Awards: Best New Musical as well as Best Actor and Actress in a Musical for Evans and Spiro.

Doyle’s production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, performed by a cast of nine actor-musicians, started life at the Watermill in February 2004 before launching several UK tours, transferring to the West End (winning Awards for Best Musical Revival and Best Ensemble Performance) and, in 2005, on to Broadway, where it won two Tony Awards, Best Orchestrations and, for Doyle himself, Best Direction of a Musical (See News, 12 Jun 2006).

Doyle was nominated in the same category in this year’s Tony Awards for his Broadway follow-up, another actor-musician production of Sondheim’s Company. In the UK, he made the technique his trademark over many years at the Watermill with productions including Fiddler on the Roof, Gondoliers and, his last outing at the theatre, Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel, which opened in Newbury transferred to the West End, starring David Soul and Janie Dee, in 2006.

Returning to the Watermill after two-and-a-half years, Doyle is dedicating his new production to the theatre’s former artistic director Jill Fraser, who died in February 2006 (See News, 13 Feb 2006). Explaining his commitment and approach to the project, John Doyle said: "It is almost two years since Jill Fraser asked me if I would do one more musical at the Watermill. I promised I would. Much has changed, of course, in those two years, but I wanted to keep my promise to Jill. Usually we would have planned together what we would do and how it would be achieved. This was not to be.

“It would have been time for Jill's retirement from the Watermill, a theatre that she transformed into one of the great success stories of regional theatre history. She was not by nature overly sentimental, but she valued all that mattered most about the past, the growth from small beginnings into artistic and commercial success. She also was passionate about taking chances and risks, a passion that she passed on to all who worked for her.

“So. A musical about looking back. A musical about the positive and negative implications of success. A musical that has a wonderful score and a witty book (Jill loved to laugh). And yet, a musical which was not as successful as it should have been when it was first produced on Broadway. So - just a little bit of a risk. Because of the encouragement Jill gave me, and the risks she took, the Watermill's production of Sweeney Todd transferred to Broadway and created its own small revolution. Indeed from small beginnings, success both artistic and commercial was created.

“Jill enjoyed honouring those who worked at her theatre and at the same time encouraging new artists to work there. That is why I decided to collaborate with Catherine Jayes as orchestrator. She and I first worked together in Worcester in 1981, when I was also a young associate director at the Watermill, and she also orchestrated my first-ever actor-musician show, Candide, at the Liverpool Everyman. She also wrote the music for Tom Jones, the first show Jill ever asked me to direct during her tenure. And as my designer Liz Ascroft, new to the Watermill this is, but we have collaborated on many occasions, most recently on Lucia di Lammermoor for Scottish Opera. The company will be made up of old and new faces, again reflecting Jill's desire for constant change.

“The show is set mainly in New York. It is about artists who start from nothing and go on to win Tony Awards. It includes song titles like ‘Hey Old Friends’ and ‘Not a Day Goes By’. I hope the choice becomes more apparent.”

- by Terri Paddock