Despite its Bumpy History, Merrily We Roll Along Glides Back to New York
“Better look back,” the chorus sings at the top of Merrily We Roll Along. The musical is about to rewind in time, and so is my mind.
The first time I saw Merrily was at Fair Lawn High School in New Jersey in 2008; Stephen Sondheim apparently attended a performance and spoke to the cast. I remember being amazed by the score, confused by the story, but moved by the ending—in that amateur production’s final gesture, as the chorus refrains “me and you” during “Our Time,” antihero Franklin Shepard’s piano comes back on stage and he, alone, faces it. Maria Friedman’s production, now sold out at New York Theatre Workshop, concludes with a similar visual, and an idea clicked: music is the you to Franklin’s me, the thing he cares most about and what he has to lose when the people who make him sing fade away, dimming like distant stars.
Friedman’s production never lets us forget what Franklin (Jonathan Groff) got in exchange for his music: his California dream house acts as the unit set, which in the first scene hosts a glamorous Hollywood party following a successful film premiere. But as the scenes travel backward, we see what he traded to become a big shot producer, most dearly his writing partner Charley (Daniel Radcliffe) and the person who believed in him most, Mary (Lindsay Mendez). Song by song, their salad days loom closer and closer.
Groff, Radcliffe, and Mendez are the sterling trio at the center of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s thorny and can’t-be-left-alone musical. As the show whisks back years and decades to when Franklin and Charley and Mary got their start, I found myself contemplating turning points in these three actors’ careers: Groff was a heartthrob in Spring Awakening, Radcliffe a megawatt of a star as certain boy wizard, and Mendez an unlikely ingénue in Dogfight. I grew up with these actors, and now—with Groff a movie star, Radcliffe miraculously unscathed from childhood fame, and Mendez putting in the rear window the racist industry higher-ups who told her, per her Tony Award speech, to anglicize her surname—it is a gift to see them share the stage. Harry Potter himself could not conjure the magic of gathering these three stars into one constellation.
And what a handsome arrangement of stars it is. Friedman knows there’s little course correction that can be done to this difficult work, which closed on Broadway two weeks after its original opening in 1981. A head scratcher ever since, directors must ask: What age do you cast actors whose characters are meant to span three decades?; How do you design a cohesive set for all those years and settings?; and if the book is to blame for the original production’s demise, how do you … fix it? Nonetheless, she gives the show a contagious verve with group numbers whose energy crescendos as the characters get both younger, more naive, and unspoiled by what careers in the arts can breed.
If the libretto is to blame, it’s more or less convincingly spoken in this production. (As Franklin’s second wife, the slippery Gussie, Krystal Joy Brown makes the most of a flat role, and as the years blur other more tertiary characters are even harder to trace.) The central trio gives strong performances, and the singing is even tighter. The orchestra is slimmed down (those wishing to hear full, original Sondheim orchestrations will have to pay to see Josh Groban in Sweeney Todd next year), but silvery Groff, brassy Mendez, and scrappy Radcliffe do this varied score justice. Mendez is the mightiest singer, and her verse in “Now You Know,” the act one closer and a celebration of wisdom come late, is a musical highlight of the production.
Perhaps she shines in that solo because it embodies the core of the show: “It's called flowers wilt, it's called apples rot, it's called thieves get rich and saints get shot,” she belts. Mary, as fawning girl next door turned bestselling author turned drunk drama critic, understands that life won’t go as planned; what’s sadder, she nearly accepts it.
Still, the spark of her love for Franklin never squashes her hope, even as she descends farther from success and deeper into addiction. Mendez is extraordinary in carrying this arc, though Soutra Gilmour’s costumes all along telegraphed the gaps between Franklin and his friends; Groff always wears black and white, Mendez and Radcliffe shades of brown.
Gilmour’s design (she also did the set) is cohesive while the musical’s tone is not. One moment it’s a comedy—Tim Jackson’s choreography for “The Blob” is wonderfully oily, and Reg Rogers, as Franklin and Charley’s producer, earns laughs for his verse about a song’s need to be hummable in “Opening Doors”—but the next it’s a domestic drama. As Franklin’s first wife, Beth, Katie Rose Clarke instills great pain into “Not a Day Goes By,” but without knowing who this just-introduced character is—we’ll know her more as scenes go backwards, remember—it feels cloying to hear a song of marital strife sung when we don’t yet know her history.
This begs the question of whether the whole backwards device is nothing more than a gimmick. Would the show, based on the original play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, work if it just moved forward chronologically? Maybe, but then we’d lose its touching finale and instead land at bitter middle age.
“Our Time”’s twinkling first notes left a lump in my throat. Selfish and ambitious to a fault, Franklin is also defined by his regret. Thank goodness for Groff, who can reveal both sides of this lost soul, and when he sings “Something is stirring, shifting ground,” he equates his promise to that of Sputnik, the artificial satellite he spots soaring across the night sky. Here, Groff is at his most excited and vulnerable, and when Radcliffe and Mendez join him on the rooftop, all the preceding (or rather, forthcoming) acrimony evaporates. When you’re dreaming big, what isn’t possible on a New York rooftop beneath the autumn stars?