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The 1981 musical that reunited composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist George Furth, a decade after their landmark work on Company, has the rare distinction of being arguably Broadway’s most revered flop. Merrily We Roll Along closed after just 16 performances; audiences found the reverse-chronology storyline confusing and the decision to cast young actors took the sting out of scenes with the characters in disillusioned middle-age. Reviews were dismissive, and the experience was so difficult that Sondheim and his longtime director Harold Prince didn’t work together again for more than 20 years.
That fractured collaboration between two giants of the theater no longer with us has poignant echoes in the plot of Merrily, which was adapted from the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. But it’s not just historical significance that makes the show play much more accessibly today.
Issues with Furth’s book have been improved in various subsequent revisions and contemporary audiences are no doubt more open to both the tricky structure and to a plot that probably seemed sour in its day, tracing the path of three friends from youthful idealism to jaded disappointment. The one consistent factor with the musical’s fluctuating fortunes has been the fanatical love for Sondheim’s score.
The sold-out revival that comes to New York Theatre Workshop and is widely expected to transfer to Broadway has its roots in a 2012 staging at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, which moved to the West End the following year. It’s directed with great affection for the material — if not always with equal finesse — by Maria Friedman, whose history with the show dates back to playing female lead Mary in the U.K. in 1992. But the real selling point here is the wonderful principal cast, with three leads who could scarcely be better.
Friedman opens the show and centers the entire reflection on two decades of friendship — moving backwards in time from the late ‘70s to 1957 — around Franklin Shepard. A talented musical theater composer who has chosen money and success over art, 40-ish Franklin has become a Hollywood producer, dumped his first wife for a nakedly ambitious replacement and spent years neglecting his friends. But the gathering of stylish Los Angelenos in his Hockney-esque home to mark the premiere of a second-rate movie is a hollow celebration.
Franklin has always been an off-putting key character for a musical, a self-serving sellout whose personal loyalty seems easily disregarded. Casting the infinitely likeable Jonathan Groff allows us to see the regret in his choices and the yearning for the young dreamer he once was.
Groff has a wistful way of revealing that all the achievements, the comforts and the fashionable entourage of Franklin’s high life can’t match the vitality of his youth, when everything was about struggle and promise and hope. There’s a contained anguish in his performance that’s very moving. At the same time, he acknowledges his frustration with his friends’ reluctance to allow him to change and grow.
The most painful burned bridge is the end of Franklin’s collaboration with lyricist Charley Kringas, now a Pulitzer-winning playwright with whom he hasn’t spoken in years. Daniel Radcliffe had charm and energy in his 2011 New York musical theater debut, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. But as Charley, he digs deeper, tracing the road from an open-hearted young man eager to change the world to a tetchy neurotic, his resentment steeped in sorrow. Conversely, he also gets to show off his physical comedy skills in some delightful, understatedly goofy moments.
Charley’s big first-act number, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” sung during a TV interview when he and Franklin have their first show on Broadway, is a withering takedown of a partner too busy schmoozing and exploring more lucrative avenues to work on their next project. It’s a challenging song, more of a tirade, and Radcliffe nails it with a steady acceleration of angry intensity, while Groff’s Franklin sits alongside him on camera, squirming with indignant humiliation.
The third element of the trio is Mary Flynn, played by the terrific Lindsey Mendez, a 2018 Tony winner for Carousel, with a natural warmth that offsets the character’s growing acerbity. A copy editor who publishes a successful first novel and then drifts into a theater critic job when a follow-up book fails to materialize, Mary mostly drifts into booze and self-pity, quietly brooding over her unrequited love for Franklin and describing herself as “fat, drunk and finished.” The messy scene she makes at Franklin’s Hollywood party is as much a violent severance of their friendship as Charley’s TV interview.
Friedman’s revival makes a strong case for Merrily as a deeply affecting play, in which the songs and the drama are integral to one another. More than any other time I’ve seen this show, the piercing melancholy of the three friends’ shattered bonds and illusions hits hard. The musical also reveals itself to be a worthy companion piece to Sondheim and Furth’s Company, bringing the same complexity of ambivalent feelings to friendship as the earlier show brings to marriage and romantic relationships.
Will there ever be a perfect production of the troubled musical? Hard to say. The score sounds glorious here, from the soaring choral arrangements of the title song to the jaunty but fragile camaraderie of “Old Friends,” to rueful reflections on individual and collective loss like Charley’s “Good Thing Going” or Mary’s “Like It Was.”
“Now You Know” remains an uplifting ode to taking disappointment on board and growing from it, while “Opening Doors” conveys the pure adrenaline rush of young artists plugging away for recognition in one of the world’s great culture capitals and “Our Time” is a stirring hymn to youthful promise, both joyful and devastating, given that what follows has already preceded. The score really is one of Sondheim’s best.
Certain choices made here with the secondary characters seem questionable. As Franklin’s discarded first wife Beth, Katie Rose Clarke is lovely, but she’s been directed to play the histrionics at the expense of the exquisite song in the show’s most heartbreaking number, “Not a Day Goes By.” (Thankfully, that beloved standard is redeemed in the gorgeous second act reprise, when Beth is joined by Franklin and Mary.) And as Franklin’s second wife, the grandly named Gussie Carnegie, Krystal Joy Brown overplays the arriviste caricature, though the performance grows more nuanced in her earlier years.
The bigger issues are with the physical production. Designer Soutra Gilmour’s set works well for the Los Angeles opening scene but less so back in New York, even if it does serve to anchor the entire play in Franklin’s memories. The spatial dynamics are awkward, amplifying some clumsy blocking and inelegant transitions. If the show does transfer uptown, Friedman would do well to hire a more accomplished choreographer (Tim Jackson is credited with the rudimentary dance elements here), or even better, a movement director able to improve the flow.
That said, there’s much to be grateful for here, not least a genuine feeling for the material that plumbs the emotional depths without wading into cheap sentiment. The three leads alone will be cause for rejoicing among the Sondheim faithful, while newcomers to this flawed but beautiful musical might be left scratching their heads over its commercial failure. With Richard Linklater’s film adaptation — starring Ben Platt, Blake Jenner and Beanie Feldstein, and shooting at regular intervals over the next decade — at least 10 years away from completion, it’s good to have the show back in what appears to be viable form to rewrite its Broadway history.
Venue: New York Theatre Workshop
Cast: Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez, Daniel Radcliffe, Krystal Joy Brown, Katie Rose Clarke, Reg Rogers, Sherz Aletaha, Leana Rae Concepcion, Carter Harris, Colin Keane, Corey Mach, Talia Robinson, Jamila Sabares-Klemm, Brian Sears, Christian Strange, Vishal Vaidya, Natalie Wachen, Jacob Keith Watson
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: George Furth, based on the play by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart
Director: Maria Friedman
Set and costume designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting designer: Amith Chandrashaker
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Music direction: Alvin Hough Jr.
Choreographer: Tim Jackson
Presented by New York Theatre Workshop, by special arrangement with Sonia Friedman Productions, The Menier Chocolate Factory
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