At the end of Merrily We Roll Along (chronologically, the beginning), college friends Franklin Shepard and Charley Kringas meet Mary Flynn for the first time on the roof of their New York apartment building. It’s October 1957. As they witness Sputnik orbiting the earth, the trio marvels at the possibility of man and the future in store.
Sixty years after the events of the scene, Eden Espinosa settles into her Boston apartment before beginning rehearsals for the Stephen Sondheim and George Furth musical at the Huntington Theatre Company. She receives an email from her co-star Damian Humbley: “We’re up on the roof with a bottle of wine. Bring a glass.” She walks up, and for the first time, meets her Charley (Humbley) and Franklin (Mark Umbers). The three—plus director Maria Friedman—begin a journey with the same optimism and eagerness of the show’s trio.
Umbers and Humbley return to Friedman’s production after starring in its London incarnations at the Menier Chocolate Factory and in the West End. For its American premiere, Espinosa (an alum of Broadway’s Wicked and Rent) steps in as Mary, played across the pond by Jenna Russell. However, Espinosa had no qualms settling into this pre-existing unit once she met her counterparts.
“It’s funny how we automatically fell into the same dynamic that Mary, Charley, and Frank have,” says Espinosa. “Damian and I are just like brother and sister with each other, throwing insults at each other. And I look at Mark with hearts coming out of my eyes. He’s just so handsome; it’s crazy.”
Friedman herself played Mary in a U.K. revival in 1992, giving her a particular understanding of the piece and its troubled history (the original Broadway production infamously ran for 16 performances). Espinosa asserts that Friedman’s vision, which involves putting an equal spotlight on all three friends and casting performers aged at the end of the show’s 20-year span, “cuts all the crap out to get to the heart of the matter.”
“It’s difficult to ask young people who haven’t experienced certain things in life to draw up that much emotion,” Espinosa explains. “Maria has elevated the emotional stakes. It’s the same book—it’s just turning up the heat.”
Just as Merrily We Roll Along travels back through time, repeatedly asking in a musical phrase, “How did you get to be here?,” Espinosa considers her own path that led to performing Sondheim with a Tony-winning regional theatre. It’s her first foray into the composer’s work: “It’s been a love affair from afar up until now.”
On Broadway, she’s known for turns in Brooklyn (where she belted in a dress made of found items), Rent (where she belted as performance artist Maureen), and Wicked (painted green, and, again, belting).
“I still gag that Wicked’s coming up on the 14th anniversary. Like, holy shit,” says Espinosa with a laugh. She was the first standby for the role of Elphaba, and went on to play it full time on Broadway and on the West Coast. “What’s cool is seeing us that were there in the beginning grow into roles that, at the time, we were too young to play.” (Earlier this summer, fellow Elphaba Julia Murney took on another legacy role in Massachusetts: Rose in Gypsy.)
“Now, we’re all moving into middle-aged roles and see each other really thrive and do well.”
As she graduates to roles with rich histories, a new generation takes the stage as Wicked’s leading ladies. Occasionally, young women will approach Espinosa, recalling their memories of seeing her in the show. “Now they’re playing Elphaba. I love hearing those stories and thinking about when I would see theatre and say, ‘I want to do that. I want to be up there.’”
It’s a sentiment that’s echoed in the show’s wistful finale, as the young trio looks up at the sky: “Long ago, all we had was that funny feeling, saying some day we’d send them reeling.
“Now it looks like we can.”
Merrily We Roll Along continues at the Huntington Theatre Company through October 15. The theatre’s second production of the season, A Guide for the Homesick, began performances October 6.