People will be watching “Merrily We Roll Along” in 2040, if all goes as planned. That’s the year that director Richard Linklater plans to release a movie adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim and George Furth musical that he started shooting in 2019; the idea is to film over two decades to show the actors as they actually age.
Will the moviegoers of the future remember the 2023 Broadway production of “Merrily We Roll Along” as the turning point, when the much talked-about “flaws” were finally “fixed” in Sondheim’s famous 1981 flop, after many attempts over the years by many different hands?
That seems to be the current consensus about the first-ever Broadway revival of the show, now opened at the Hudson Theater. But my reaction on seeing it on Broadway is much the same as when I saw it during its Off-Broadway run nine months ago: Director Maria Friedman doesn’t eliminate what’s off-putting about “Merrily We Roll Along”; instead she directs our attention to what’s best about it.
She does this primarily by casting the main characters with three talented and appealing performers who, not incidentally, are already well-known and well-liked: Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez and Daniel Radcliffe.
Inspired by a play of the same name written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1934, and using the same structure, the musical tells the story of three old friends in reverse chronological order, from 1976 to 1957. They “start” off cynical and estranged and “end” up nineteen years earlier and eight scenes later at the birth of their friendship, idealistic and collaborative.
Groff portrays Franklin Shepard, arguably the central character of the trio, who was a talented composer for Broadway in his youth, but has turned into a money-obsessed movie producer , who we first see giving himself a party at his fancy Bel Air digs for his latest mediocre movie, “Darkness Before Dawn.” (Oddly, the current script of the musical has turned the movie into a hit, despite its low quality, when the original script had the movie as a failure – as did productions as recently as the one by Fiasco in 2019.) He is cheating on his second wife and former star Gussie (Krystal Joy Brown); has had a complete falling out with his former best friend and collaborator, playwright Charley Kringas (Radcliffe); and has so disappointed their mutual friend Mary (Mendez), a once successful novelist. that she has become a falling-down drunk.
In the transfer to Broadway, all three performances, especially Lindsay Mendez’s, felt more toned down, even as the production itself was larger – a slightly larger cast and orchestra, a few more elaborate sets.
Maybe the three actors were just tired the day I saw them, but maybe they’ve had time to settle into the characters and can inhabit them without having to “act” as demonstrably. This may also be an effort, consciously or not, to counteract what one could describe as the B-movie aspects of the show.
Given the hoary melodrama revolving around Gussie — she turns violent with Frank’s mistress, and humiliates her own ex-husband (Reg Rogers), a once-wealthy producer who is reduced to begging her for a handout — Sondheim and Furth seemed to have assumed that Hollywood is inherently corrupting. This may or may not be true, but Hollywood decadence as a subject is considerably less fresh or intriguing than the stories in the five musicals that Sondheim created in collaboration with director Harold Prince in the decade preceding “Merrily” — “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures” and “Sweeney Todd.” It was famously the failure of “Merrily” that ended this extraordinarily fruitful collaboration between the two.
What redeems “Merrily,” of course – what has motivated all those theater artists who have tried to fix it — is the music. Sondheim saw the primary themes of the musical as “the souring of ideals and the erosion of friendship,” and he expresses these musically again and again in novel, clever and yes tuneful ways –
Radcliffe’s memorable rendition of the brilliant Sondheim song, “Franklin Shepard Inc,” with its innovative use of sound effects as Charley bitterly mocks Frank on national television;
the way “Old Friends” and “Not a Day Goes By” completely change in mood and meaning each time they are sung, “Not a Day Goes By” becoming a song both about love and lost love.
And this time around, when Mary meets Franklin and Charley for the first time on the roof of the New York tenement beneath the stars, and the three aspiring artists sing
it’s our time, breathe it in:
worlds to change and worlds to win.
our turn coming through,
me and you, pal, me and you!
there’s so much genuine-feeling joy in their voices and camaraderie evident in their carriage and expressions that it might make you cry; it made me want to stay on that roof.
If I can’t agree that Maria Friedman has solved the problems of Sondheim’s musical now and forever, it’s kind of lovely that the public’s reception of “Merrily We Roll Along” seems to have traveled much the same journey (albeit in reverse) as the characters within the musical itself – starting off discontent, ending up rapturous.
Merrily We Roll Along
Hudson Theater through March 24, 2024
Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $164 – $499. Digital lottery on TodayTix: $39
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, hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan.
Cast: Jonathan Groff as Franklin Shepard, Lindsay Mendez as Mary Flynn, Daniel Radcliffe as Charley Kringas, Krystal Joy Brown as Gussie, Katie Rose Clarke as Beth Shepard, Reg Rogers as Joe, Sherz Aletaha, Maya Boyd, Leana Rae Concepcion, Corey Mach, Max Rackenberg as Franklin Jr alternative, Talia Simone Robinson, Jamila Sabares-Klemm, Brian Sears, Evan Alexander Smith, Christian Strange, Vishal Vaidya, Natalie Wachen, Brady Wagner as Frank Jr, Alternate, Jacob Keith Watson