Review: ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ Finally Found in the Dark

To be a fan of the work of Stephen Sondheim, as Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times, is “to have one’s heart broken at regular intervals.” He meant not only that Sondheim’s songs are so often crushingly poignant but that the experience of loving them can feel unrequited. The shows they are in — he was reviewing the original production of “Merrily We Roll Along” — don’t always love you back.

That was in 1981, when “Merrily,” with a problematic book by George Furth, suffered an ignominious Broadway debut of just 16 performances after 44 previews. No matter that Sondheim, responding to the story of a songwriter, had written his most conspicuously tuneful score to date, prompting pop recordings by Frank Sinatra (“Good Thing Going”) and Barbra Streisand (“Not a Day Goes By”). It was universally deemed a debacle.

The debacle ended the working relationship between Sondheim and the director Harold Prince, whose five shows together in the 1970s — “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures” and “Sweeney Todd” — had redefined the American musical. With “Merrily,” they thought they were taking the form even further, with a complicated backward chronology and a cast of mostly inexperienced actors who played 40-ish adults at the start and grew into themselves at the end.

After the show’s death by a thousand pans, Sondheim, saying he’d rather make video games, threatened to leave the theater entirely. Luckily, that didn’t happen — and “Merrily,” too, refused to give up, instead undergoing a seemingly endless series of unsatisfactory “improvements” that only seemed to confirm the hopelessness of making it matter.

But with the opening of its first Broadway revival, after 42 years in the wilderness and the death of Sondheim in 2021, “Merrily” is no longer lost. Maria Friedman’s unsparing direction and a thrillingly fierce central performance by Jonathan Groff have given the show the hard shell it lacked. Now heartbreaking in the poignant sense only, “Merrily” has been found in the dark.

When we meet him after the uplift of the gleaming overture, Groff, as the composer Franklin Shepard, is alone in an empty and unappealing liminal space. (The deliberately ugly sets, perhaps uglier than necessary, are by Soutra Gilmour.) He is wearing, and will throughout the show, a solemn undertaker’s outfit — black pants, black tie, white shirt. Even as everyone else changes with the times, in vivid costumes (also by Gilmour) that mark each notch on the timeline from 1976 to 1957, Frank always remains what he was: a one-man show. “Merrily” is the funeral he throws for his own ideals.

Groff, right, with Lindsay Mendez and Daniel Radcliffe as friends whose relationship sours in the Sondheim-Furth musical, which is getting its first Broadway revival.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The contrast between the pleasures that music can provide and the damage obvious in Frank’s demeanor immediately frames what follows as a solo psychodrama. Yes, Charley Kringas, who writes the words, and their friend Mary Flynn, a novelist turned theater critic, are there throughout, trying to encourage his better angels and corral his worse ones. But despite high-wattage, laser-focused performances by Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez, they have no effect on him; they are clearly Frank’s pawns, willing or otherwise.

How he destroys Mary, and nearly Charley as well, not without their assistance, is revealed as the musical’s formerly absent spine. In the first scene, a 1976 party for “Darkness Before Dawn,” a hack hit movie Frank has produced now that he no longer writes music, Mary is dispatched with barely a blink, or drunkenly dispatches herself.

In the next scene, as Charley enumerates Frank’s misplaced priorities in a 1973 television interview — Radcliff handles the song “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” superbly — Groff’s coldblooded rage is terrifying. Collateral damage along the way includes Frank’s first wife, Beth (Katie Rose Clarke); his second, Gussie (Krystal Joy Brown); his probable third, Meg (Talia Simone Robinson); his producer, Joe (Reg Rogers); and even his adorable young son. Who but a monster would betray such a punim?

“Merrily” is thus no longer, as it seemed in 1981, the story of the gradual, almost inevitable dimming of youth’s sweet illusions but rather the story of their falsity in the first place. Frank is only devoted to Mary and Charley when he doesn’t have access to anyone more useful. To think he turned into that monster is a mistake: He always was one, as Sondheim clearly understood. “That’s what everyone does,” Mary sings once the three-way friendship has collapsed. “Blames the way it is/on the way it was/On the way it never ever was.”

Friedman has thrown in her lot with the coruscating insight of the songs, making a tactical decision — successful but not without consequences — to deprioritize everything else, including the score’s brassy élan. “Merrily” Kremlinologists will want to know that the version onstage at the Hudson Theater, though slightly bigger than the Off Broadway version that opened at New York Theater Workshop in December 2022, is still somewhat underscaled for Broadway. It has a cast of 19 instead of 17 and an orchestra of 13 instead of nine.

In Maria Friedman’s unsparing production, our critic writes, the trajectories for the secondary characters at last make some sense.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

It takes more than even those larger numbers to deliver the Golden Age thrill that is, after all, the show’s milieu. (The original orchestra had 20 players.) Other than the costumes, the minimal design is more practical than inspiring; the sound of the band (playing new orchestrations by Sondheim’s longtime collaborator Jonathan Tunick) is especially unbalanced. The choreography by Tim Jackson too often seems charades-like. Some of the solo singing could be more effective, technically and thus emotionally.

And then there is, as always, the book. Friedman has apparently made her peace with Furth’s final Frankensteined version; though its pieces are coarsely sutured and don’t quite line up, at least the thing walks. If in seeking to sweeten the main story it still leans too heavily on thin satire for laughs — morning news shows, Hollywood sycophancy — the trajectories for the secondary characters, especially Beth and Gussie, who are now more than cannon fodder, at last make some sense.

In this production, though, it wouldn’t matter much if they didn’t. Radcliffe’s wit and modesty, combined with Mendez’s zing and luster, provide perfect settings for what is now (as it has never been previously) the inarguably central performance. Groff, always a compelling actor, here steps up to an unmissable one. With his immense charisma turned in on itself, he seems to sweat emotion: ambition, disappointment and, most frighteningly, a terrible frozen disgust.

I don’t know whether that’s what Furth intended, but Sondheim is brutally clear about the insidiousness of great talent. In Frank, it eats everything it can find, eventually including itself. “Who says ‘Lonely at the top’?” he sings amid the end-stage cynicism of his loveless Bel Air party. “I say, ‘Let it never stop.’”

What a strange and daring thing for the great and greatly missed Sondheim to dramatize, and for Friedman to forefront. I’d call it heartbreaking if the result weren’t finally such a palpable hit.

Merrily We Roll Along
Through March 24 at the Hudson Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

Back to top button