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Merrily We Roll Along

Merrily We Roll Along


By Deirdre Donovan


A group of people sitting on a bench

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Lindsay Mendez, Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe (Photo: Matthew Murphy)


The Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical Merrily We Roll Along, the problem child in the American musical theater, is back on Broadway! This new revival, deftly helmed by Maria Friedman, has Sondheim aficionados smiling.


Theatergoers of a certain age may well remember that the original, directed by Harold Prince, flopped big-time, a sixteen-performance disaster. The critics pointed fingers at the confusing libretto (the story starts at the end, and ends with the start) that was a musical update of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1934 play of the same name.


And that's not all! They panned its lackluster costumes, bland school gymnasium set, and general lack of visual appeal. Sondheim reportedly felt it was the inexperienced youthful cast who couldn't pull off a sophisticated musical about show business. And, at the time, he also believed that the Broadway bigwigs hated him and Harold Prince. Indeed, this artistic failure made Sondheim consider quitting the theater for movies, creating video games, or writing mysteries.' And it also would end his professional partnership with Prince.


If the current version of Merrily doesn't erase the painful memory of the original, it certainly proves that the 1981 musical is not only stageable but truly meant for a Broadway stage. This present iteration, in fact, is based on London's 2012 Menier Chocolate Factory production, directed by Friedman, which later transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End, and subsequently won the 2014 Olivier Award for Best Revival of a Musical.


The 2022 sold-out production at the New York Theatre Workshop--also directed by Friedman, and headlining Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez--opened on November 21, 2022 and shuttered on January 22, 2023. Little wonder that nine months later, it would land on Broadway, with the full principal cast, opening at the elegant 977-seat Hudson Theatre on October 10, 2023.


The gimmick of the show is that its story goes backwards in time, starting in 1976 and ending in 1957. It's about three best friends'Franklin Shepard (Jonathan Groff), Charley Kringas (Daniel Radcliffe), and Mary Flynn (Lindsay Mendez)--who make it to the top of the Broadway-Hollywood showbiz world, with two of the trio discovering that their lives are empty, superficial, and loveless.


The opening scene shows the central characters at a present-day soir'e, where they are at their worst. As the years roll back, scene by scene, one gradually ends up seeing them at their best: full of ideals, artistic integrity, and love.


We get treated to some of Sondheim's best songs in this musical, including its eponymous anthem, "Old Friends," and "Opening Doors." Sondheim famously said: "Content dictates form. He clearly followed this dictum when he composed his songs for Merrily. Since Sondheim realized that its message was about friendship, he concentrated attention on the friendship of Mary, Franklin (nicknamed "Frank"), and Charley, making sure to interconnect all their songs through chunks of melody, rhythm, and refrains. He added other connective tissue to his score, ensuring that the backward-moving story cohered as a musical whole.'


A group of people on a stage

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Reg Rogers, Katie Rose Clarke, Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez. (Photo:' Matthew Murphy)


There are, of course, more traditional songs peppered into this show. Take the ballad, "Good Thing Going, sung by Daniel Radcliffe, as Charley, which celebrates the complexities and bittersweet nature of relationships:


"It started out like a song, 
We started quiet and slow with no surprise,
Then one morning I woke to realize 
We have a good thing going."


Radcliffe gets to show off his musical chops again with the charming number about artistic partnership, "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," as his character Charley gamely responds to an interviewer:

"How do we work together? Sure
He goes -
(piano keys)
And I go -

And soon we're humming along -
And that's called writing a song -
Then he goes -
(piano keys)
And I go -
And the phone goes brrrring!"


Be prepared for surprises! In fact, the send-up of the Kennedys, "Bobby and Jackie and Jack," is one of the show's cleverest numbers. It not only wittily provides a litany of this American political family's names but notes some of the real-life political drama in the Kennedy White House. Case in point. President John Kennedy taps his ambitious brother "Bobby" to be the 64th United States attorney general. Or as Sondheim satirically spins it in his lyrics: "Okay, Bobby, I'll make you Attorney General. Just get off my back."


The acting is top-notch. Jonathan Groff's Frank is convincing as the tormented but influential songwriter and film producer who started out as an innocent and bright-eyed optimist.' Daniel Radcliffe's Charley is spot on as the stubborn, successful lyricist who, like Frank, once looked at life through rose-colored glasses. . .but ultimately made his own luck in New York City.' Jamila Sabares-Klemm, the understudy for Lindsay Mendez, portrayed the alcoholic writer Mary as fittingly witty, sardonic, and bitter. Krystal Joy Brown's Gussie Carnegie, Frank's second wife and Joe's ex-wife, is rightly flamboyant, seductive, and greedy.' Reg Rogers is convincing as he portrays his character Joe, first as a pathetic and down-at-heel has-been and then as a big-talking Broadway producer.' Katie Rose Clarke, as Beth Shepard, is equally watchable as Frank's ex-wife early on and then as the na've young woman who falls in love with Frank when he was an aspiring composer. The rest of the cast hold their own on stage, including the pint-sized actor Brady Wagner who ably played Frank, Jr., at the Wednesday evening performance I attended (Wagner splits the role with Max Rackenberg and Calvin James Davis). But audience members never know which youngster in the trio will go on at any given performance.


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Krystal Joy Brown, Jonathan Groff (Photo: Matthew Murphy)


Perhaps what lies behind the success of Friedman's Merrily is that she focuses on the friendships in the story rather than on how time is reversing.' She also is supported by a top-drawer creative team: Broadway veteran Soutra Gilmour (set and costumes) has conjured up a chic contemporary set and scrumptious outfits that look like they were plucked off the racks of Bergdorf Goodman; the internationally-renowned Amith Chandrashaker captures the musical's nostalgic mood with his chameleon lighting; and Broadway regular Cookie Jordan has more than a few wigs in her arsenal to up the glamor of the show.


What is new with the Broadway production is that audiences get to hear the luscious overture, with Sondheim's musical genius pulsating through it. And, most importantly, musical director Joel Fram, has the orchestra not overpower the singers.


This revival of Merrily fires on all cylinders. One would do well to snag a ticket before this hit Broadway show is history. Too bad Sondheim isn't here to see his beloved musical staged so brilliantly.


Extended through July 7, 2024.

At the Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th Street, Midtown Manhattan.

For tickets and more information, visit

Running time: 2 hours and a half with intermission.