“That’s the sound of a hit,” Jonathan Groff as Franklin Shepard sings about halfway through the current Off-Broadway production of the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical “Merrily We Roll Along.” It is 1964, and Groff’s character is at the opening night of the first Broadway musical that he has composed, with his old friend and collaborator Charley Kringas (Daniel Radcliffe), sharing the moment with their inseparable friend Mary Flynn (Lindsay Mendez), savoring the promise of much success to come:
No more writing clever little shows
For those basement saloons,
No more proclamations from the pros
That ‘you can’t hum the tunes’
There is irony in the song, since the actual musical in which it appears was in fact a flop when it debuted on Broadway in 1981, one that marked the end of the legendary collaboration between Sondheim and producer and director Harold Prince.
But it is also a delectable moment of vindication, because “Merrily We Roll Along” is now an undeniable hit. Its entire run immediately sold out, leaving theatergoers to camp out daily on the cancellation line for upwards of twelve hours. Just a few days after its opening, its producers announced a Broadway transfer for Fall, 2023, its first-ever Broadway revival.
Does this popularity prove that the “flaws” in this former flop have been “fixed”? Seeing this show at New York Theatre Workshop almost a month after it opened, and just two weeks before it closes, gives me a different perspective on this question – a question that everybody seemed to ask, and that many answered in the affirmative. To me the question itself says as much about this specific cultural moment as about this particular production.
“Merrily We Roll Along” was inspired by a play of the same name written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1934, and uses the same structure, of tellling the story of three old friends in reverse chronological order. The first scene we see is a fancy cocktail party taking place at Frank’s home in Bel Air in 1976 when they are estranged, corrupt, and unhappy; the last a pre-dawn gathering on a tenement rooftop on 110th Street in 1957, when they first meet, full of dreams and ideals. In the original production, director Harold Prince cast college age performers to portray the central characters. It’s universally acknowledged to have been a fatal mistake, but one that has not been repeated in any of the productions I’ve seen since, most recently by the Fiasco theater company in 2019. (Those who don’t know the history of the musical can seek out “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” the 2016 documentary film about the musical directed by Lonny Price, who played Charley Kringas in the original.)
Yes, I too liked this latest production, primarily because it is terrifically cast. The three leads in particular make the most of what’s always been best about the show – Sondheim’s songs. It’s thrilling when they sing as a trio, especially as idealistic youth in “Opening Doors” and “Our Time,” and each has solos that show off their golden voices. But the production also works because of several factors that play down what I’ve always found to be the worst about the show.
The two main themes of the musical – as Sondheim put it, “the souring of ideals and the erosion of friendship” – are both weighty, worthy subjects, which frankly interest me more and more the older I get. Several of Sondheim’s songs, such as “Old Friends,” fully do these justice, not just musically and lyrically but theatrically, which is to say the way the characters change within a song and the context changes with each reprise of it. One of the most memorable songs, “Not a Day Goes By,” is both about love, and lost love.
But there is no getting away from the “Valley of the Dolls”-flavored stories through which these subjects are explored: Mary Flynn, a best-selling novelist turned literal falling-down drunk – and, maybe worse, drama critic — bitter from unrequited love for Franklin; Franklin Shepard, a talented composer turned moneybags movie producer, corrupted by his villainous second wife Gussie, and cheating on her with his new star Meg. (Krystal Joy Brown deserves kudos for making Gussi a recognizable human being.) If that’s not showbiz trashy enough, a throwaway character, Gussie’s former husband Joe (Reg Rogers) was a wealthy producer until Gussie threw him away; we see him reduced to begging her for a handout. Even Charley, who is painted as the most down-to-earth of the three friends, a happily married, successful Broadway playwright, doesn’t just have a falling out with Franklin; he attacks him spectacularly while they sit side by side on national television.
Granted, that last attack is welcome because it’s the brilliant Sondheim song, “Franklin Shepard Inc,” with its innovative use of sound effects and of the reprises, and Radcliffe is perfect in it.
But many moments feel over-the-top, clichéd, old-fashioned. At one point, right before that notorious TV interview with Franklin and Charley, the TV hosts read off the news, including the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, with newscaster Hal concluding: “A long time controversy now ended.” I don’t remember this line from any previous versions, and it made me wonder whether this playful touch was tacitly acknowledging a 21st century audience’s greater sophistication, or at least our distance in 2023 from the earlier era and from the material.
The hoary cocktail crowd melodrama is intrinsic to the musical; it wouldn’t work to give Franklin and Charley a plumbing business together and make Mary a nurse. But this production of “Merrily We Roll Along” arguably works as well as it does not just because of Maria Friedman’s smart direction, but because of the perception and attitude of New York theatergoers.
We are won over by the three main performers who are portraying such off-putting characters, even Franklin, because, yes, they are talented and appealing – but also because we know them. All of them are in their thirties, and can physically pass for younger. But doesn’t our memory of Daniel Radcliffe as young Harry Potter help? And of Jonathan Groff as fresh-faced Melchior in “Spring Awakening?” Lindsay Mendez’s look of longing and pain when she sees Franklin kiss somebody else is devastating, but it is made all the more so by my memory of her performance as the humiliated Rose Fenny in “Dogfight.” We wind up rooting for the characters because we are rooting for the actors.
Can’t we say the same about Sondheim? We certainly know him. I’d wager that the average New York theatergoer knows “Merrily We Roll Along” backwards and forwards, so to speak; few are likely to be as confused by the reverse timeline as theatergoers were in the past. Sondheim was without doubt held in increasing esteem during his lifetime by a growing cadre of aficionados, but his musicals rarely lasted on Broadway for a full year, and only once for slightly more than two. Have we now entered a markedly different era, one akin to what happens to so many great painters, whose appeal and literal value grow after their deaths?
A little more than a year after Stephen Sondheim’s death, have we started to see all of his work in a new light?
Merrily We Roll Along
New York Theatre Workshop through January 22, 2023
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
Based on the Original Play by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick
Choreographed by Tim Jackson
Directed by Maria Friedman
Set and costume design by Soutra Gilmour, lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker, sound design by Kai Harada
Cast: Sherz Aletaha as Scotty/Mrs. Spencer/Auditionee, Krystal Joy Brown as Gussie Carnegie, Katie Rose Clarke as Beth Shepard, Leana Rae Concepcion as Newscaster/Waitress/Auditionee, Jonathan Groff as Franklin Shepard, Matthew Lamb as Franklin Shepard Jr. (alternates with Carter Harris and Colin Keane, Morgan Kirner (as Swing, Corey Mach as Tyler/Make-Up Artist, Lindsay Mendez as Mary Flynn, Daniel Radcliffe as Charley Kringas, Talia Robinson as Meg Kincaid, Reg Rogers as Joe Josephson, Amanda Rose as Swing, Jamila Sabares-Klemm as Dory/Evelyn, Brian Sears as Newscaster/Photographer/Bunker, Evan Alexander Smith as Swing, Christian Strange as Ru/Reverend, Koray Tarhan as Swing, Vishal Vaidya as Jerome, Natalie Wachen (as KT and Jacob Keith Watson as Terry/Mr. Spencer.