Theater: “Merrily We Roll Along” at New York Theater Workshop
Is there any doubt that Stephen Sondheim was our greatest modern day composer? There may have been a few concerns when “Merrily We Roll Along” opened on Broadway on November 16, 1981 and closed 12 days later.
Was it the basic sourness of the storyline: a talented composer of musicals who abandons his friends and songwriting career to become a producer of Hollywood movies? Or the fact that it moved backwards in time—a concept that may have seemed a bit weird 41 years ago?
Or maybe Hal Prince’s idea of casting teenagers dressed in identical costumes threw audiences off. (Fun fact: The original cast included such future stars as Jason Alexander and Tonya Pinkins.)
Despite its unhappy start, “Merrily” quickly became a cult hit much beloved for its luscious score. Various revivals popped up over the years—in DC, London and even in such faraway climes as Kuala Lumpur. The closest it got to Broadway proper was a 2012 Encores production featuring an actor fairly unknown at the time: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
I am happy to report that once again the theatrical daring of New York Theater Workshop has done what previous companies could not. Their new production is a dazzle-fest and had this normally skeptical New York theatergoer alternately screaming his lungs out, and being moved to tears.
Directed by Maria Friedman, who was once cast in a UK production of Merrily back in the day, this modest but slick production grabs you from the opening notes of the title song. Franklin (Jonathan Groff), the humble composer gone Hollywood, is throwing a party celebrating the success of his latest flick. His long-time pal Mary (Lindsay Mendez), estranged from Franklin and outraged he has gone commercial, has flown in from New York and grows more bitter with each glass of booze she downs. “How did we get here?” the song begins. Thus begins the retelling, moving backwards in time, of 20 years of friendship between Franklin, Mary and Charley (Daniel Radcliffe), Franklin’s erstwhile and now estranged writing partner.
What also follows are some of the loveliest and liveliest numbers in the Sondheim suite. “Not a Day Goes By” and “It’s a Hit”, fans will be glad to hear, are sheer perfection. As is the cast who finally make it mesh together so well. Jonathan Groff, all growed up and serious as Franklin, has come a long way, baby, since his baby-faced teen days of “Spring Awakening.” Lindsay Mendez, whom we loved in “Dogface” and who was the only good thing about the misbegotten production of “Carousel” a few years back, is charming and funny as the woman who loves Franklin, and whom Franklin doesn’t love back. As for Radcliffe, few people on earth move across the stage with such impish energy. And he can sing too!
The paean to MWRA would not be complete without a tip of the helmet to Krystal Joy-Brown as Gussie, Franklin’s glamorous second wife; Reg Rogers as Joe, the producer, and Katie Rose Clarke as Franklin’s first wife.
The bad news, we hear, is that this off-Broadway production is pretty much sold-out. The good news, however, is that it will transfer to Broadway some time in 2023 with cast intact. Which means the greatest modern day composer will have had three of his greatest shows—Company, Into the Woods, and Merrily— revived over the last few years. It’s only proper—-as the characters in MWRA might say of Stephen Sondheim, “who’s like him? Damn few.”