If you are a Stephen Sondheim fan, you will have likely booked your ticket to Merrily We Roll Along at New York Theatre Workshop (to Jan 21, 2023), and possibly not just because Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, stars as one of the central trio whose relationship we watch in reverse—in tatters and broken at the outset in 1976, and then reassembled, right back to their sweet meeting on an apartment building’s roof in October 1957, as Sputnik passes overhead in the night sky and they pinky-swear their union.
This is a wonderful production to see if you can (although tickets are reportedly sold out), the master’s music and lyrics and George Furth’s perfect book based on George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s original play all played with precision and deft comprehension. It is strange to think of it as the notorious flop it was when first on Broadway 41 years ago when you see it done so well. It joins the larger-scale, shimmering Into the Woods as another Sondheim jewel of 2022.
This Merrily finds Jonathan Groff in a career-shining role as Franklin Shepard, the rich, famous songwriter and film producer, and Lindsay Mendez, the standout of the show, as Mary Flynn, the drink-guzzling truth-teller of the group who loves Franklin hopelessly and who also wants desperately to keep the trio intact—despite Franklin’s wealth and airless Hollywood fame, and the ambitions and manipulations of his viperish wife Gussie Carnegie (Krystal Joy Brown, relishing every jab, putdown, and curl of the lip) helping to drive them apart. But even Gussie has heartbreak to contend with, as Franklin has been cheating on her—and right in front of her and us.
If you have seen Merrily before, you know how almost unbearably moving it is—its smooth combination of gorgeous music, piercing lyrics, scythe-sharp humor, and rewind-constructed emotional highs and lows. It is good to know that, like us watching it, the cast reportedly cried a lot during rehearsals. As Mendez told the New York Times, “This show, it hits you in the gut every second.”
Radcliffe, generously and humbly considering his own fame, plays the quieter and put-upon member of the group and the sub to Groff’s dom in their music-writing duo. When he explodes in song (“Franklin Shepard, Inc.”)—during a TV interview where his partner’s latest betrayal for fame emerges just before the camera turns on—the seething is quiet and with a curdled smile signaling that by now Charlie expects nothing less from Franklin.
As performed so beautifully here, the other songs don’t just pull at your heart-strings, they shred them: “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Not a Day Goes By,” and “Our Time” are all differently perfect distillations of regret, longing, desire, hopes, and dreams. “Opening Doors,” “Rich and Happy,” “It’s a Hit!” and “Good Thing Going” are more rollicking, charting upward life and career ascents. And utterly charming is the brilliant “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” performed long before any success with Franklin’s first wife Beth (Katie Rose Clarke)—a perfect, miniature satire of the power tendrils of the Kennedy family.
It’s taken 10 years for this production to make its way from London’s Menier Chocolate Factory via an Olivier Award-stop in the the West End to New York, and the NYTW’s small stage makes it even more of a treat—we can hear the voices and harmonies close-up (orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick and music design by Kai Harada). Somehow director Maria Friedman and choreographer Tim Jackson fill the stage with pods of movement and activity as loopy, tantalizing, and exacting as the lyrics, whether it be Mary’s drunken tirade and falls, bread rolls being used as missiles, or the wonderful company lurching as one towards the audience as the Blob, into which Sondheim and Furth distilled their version of the exhausting tastemakers (“Faabulous”) who govern the cultural conversation.
Also perfectly on point: Soutra Gilmour’s scenic and costume design, the former making the most of a shell of an apartment, which seamlessly transforms from LA mansion to New York City penthouse and more. Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting is quietly stunning too: block colors echoing the extremely groovy and era-perfect fashions, from Beatnik to seventies glam and flares, and West Coast luxe.
Why does Merrily remain so moving? Well, we see on stage what we as humans tend to do—looking back to make sense of what went right or what went wrong. Yet we rarely see the trajectory as cleverly as Sondheim and Furth mount it. It is unsparing, wickedly so. Yet its heart is open. That is why, as Mendez says, it is so lacerating to perform—and for us to watch.
You see the making of the asshole that Franklin becomes—how money and success maketh a monster who early on was just a bit thoughtless. We see how art is the most important thing, and then becomes a wrestled-over and defiled commodity. We see friendship curdle, then bloom. In everything bad we see good seeds, accentuating the heartbreak of so much that is ultimately lost or broken.
And in Mendez’s spectacular performance as Mary (truly, one of the stage performances of the year), we see not just a simple tale of unrequited love—for Franklin—but the crushing disappointment of the present day compared to where we end the musical, where three people met on a roof, their creativity and smarts sparking, ready to take on some kind of world out there. Merrily We Roll Along shows where the highways and byways of love, creativity, friendship, and ambition can leave us. Yes, you can bring tissues, or just go, immerse yourselves, and head out onto the streets, eyes still leaky and heart full.