Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s famous Broadway flop Merrily We Roll Along, which lasted 16 performances before shuttering in 1981, returns for another revival, this time at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop and featuring a cast of heavy-hitters including Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez.
But the real stars are director Maria Friedman and choreographer Tim Jackson, who bring their critically acclaimed London production to the U.S. for the second time. (Boston’s Huntington Theatre presented the same version in 2017). The result is an acutely focused exploration of friendships gone awry, unspoken love, and misguided obsession with success.
Based on George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s play, Merrily We Roll Along’s tells its story backward — a creative challenge that stumped the musical’s original director, the formidable Hal Prince.
This Merrily rolls forward despite the reversal of time, culminating in a final moment of naïve optimism that’s bound to shatter the heart of any audience member who’s faced some of life’s inevitable setbacks.
No Tea, No Shade:
It’s 1976, and we’re in the Bel Air home of Franklin Shepard (Jonathan Groff), a successful filmmaker celebrating the success of his latest release with the Hollywood elite, plenty of cocaine and champagne, and longtime friend Mary (Lindsay Mendez). The pair’s history dates back to their early days in New York City as struggling artists — he a composer, and she an aspiring novelist. Absent is Charley Kringas (Daniel Radcliffe), Franklin’s former best friend and writing partner.
Through vignettes packed with a brilliant cacophony of melodic references that track each character’s origin, Merrily We Roll Along unravels the choices we make in life and how — despite our best intentions — we’re bound to f*ck things up along the way. If Sondheim and Furth teach us anything, it’s that none of us escape our time without being complicit in someone else’s pain at one point or another.
Friedman told the New York Times that “the entire cast spent the first two weeks of rehearsals in tears, in tears, and they had no idea why,” later suggesting that the material forces actors to get in touch “with this infinite pool of sadness that we all possess, that’s also so close to joy.”
A huge part of that emotional lift is due to Sondheim’s music and lyrics. Frank’s recently divorced wife Beth (Katie Rose Clarke) first sings “Not a Day Goes By” as a testament to the pain of their ending relationship. Song fragments later appear as part of their wedding vows and are echoed by Mary as an expression of unrequited love toward Frank.
The jigsaw puzzle continues to assemble as storylines reverse-engineer, from Frank’s second wife, Hollywood starlet Gussie Carnegie’s (Krystal Joy Brown) early days as a secretary hungry for success to Frank and Charlie’s first audition for producer Joe Josephson (Reg Rogers), who like Mary, succumbs to alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Let’s Have a Moment:
Frank, on the verge of a nervous breakdown after his divorce hearing, receives tough love from Mary and his crew of besties. Act I’s finale, “Now You Know,” delivers a cautiously optimistic anthem about surviving life’s unexpected turns. “What’s your choice … count to ten … burn your bridges, start again,” Mary sings. “You should burn them every now and then or you’ll never grow!” Of course, her intention may be shadowed by years of yearning for Frank.
Mendez, who won a Tony Award for Carousel and has gone green as Elphaba in Wicked, is a master interpreter of Sondheim’s dense score. Even weathered and defeated, glimpses of Mary’s younger self flicker in early scenes, a testament to Mendez’s comment that “This show, it hits in you in the gut every second.”
In the musical’s final scene, we witness the first moment when Mary and Frank meet. The year is now 1957, and the twentysomethings converge on the roof of their Upper East Side apartment building in the early morning hours to witness the launch of Sputnik, the first world’s first artificial satellite. It’s love at first listen — Mary has been hearing Frank pluck away at the piano.
“How does anybody compose music though?” Mary asks. “To me that is the gift of gifts.”
“I just met the girl I oughta marry,” Frank responds. But we know that will never come to be.
The Last Word:
In one of his last interviews before his death, Sondheim told D.T. Max, “The joy of the theater is that from generation to generation, from year to year, the production is alive, because it can be done differently … and that’s so much better than writing for the movies, where it’s there, and that may be perfect, but that’s permanent. The fun is allowing people to reinterpret.”
Perhaps there was a bit of Sondheim in Charley, whose love for the theater only grew stronger throughout his career, which spanned more than six decades. In a review of the original production, critic Frank Rich wrote that it was watched with “an ever-mounting — and finally upsetting — sense of regret.”
But to watch with regret and to live with regret are different takeaways. Merrily We Roll Along, now over 50 years old since it shuttered on Broadway, has found new life. Though we can’t reinvent the past, this new production reminds us as the trio of friends sing, “It’s our time, breathe it in: worlds to change and worlds to win.”
Merrily We Roll Along plays at New York Theater Workshop through January 22, 2023.