Mention the Sondheim-Furth musical “Merrily We Roll Along” to some and it will elicit groans. “It’s not my favorite,” a friend and drama critic said to me in hushed tones.
Indeed, after garnering negative review after negative review, “Merrily” lasted just 16 performances after its opening. In 1981. It was a flop. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by George Furth – and a story arc based on a 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart – the musical had been conceived by theater royalty yet it garnered only one Tony nomination (for best original score) and won a Drama Desk award for best lyrics.
Since then, the show has been extensively rejiggered multiple times. It received a fairly good reception with a 1994 off-Broadway revival – which I enjoyed immensely – and now has been substantially reworked by director Maria Friedman and presented at an off-Broadway production staged at the New York Theatre Workshop.
Friedman’s magic made this production the hottest ticket of the season and a fall 2023 transfer to Broadway has already been announced.
For the uninitiated, the show tells the story of how three friends – and their lives – change over a 20-year period. It focuses largely on Franklin Shepard (Jonathan Groff), a talented composer who, over 20 years, abandons his two closest friends (Daniel Radcliffe as Charley Kringas and Lindsay Mendez as Mary Flynn) and musical career to become a big-shot Hollywood producer. Just as in the Kaufman-Hart play, the show’s story moves backwards in time, starting in 1976 at a low point in the friends’ relationship and ending in 1957, when the ties that bind them are just beginning to form.
For one, the show is perfectly cast. It takes a certain kind of talent to be able to perform roles where one de-ages 20 years in the course of two hours and 30 minutes and Friedman’s reframing of the show kept me on the edge of my seat even though I know the actual plot – what there is of one – backwards and forwards, or is it forwards and backwards in this case?
Groff’s Franklin Shepard is clearly a hack, with an ex-wife, a current Broadway-star wife, and a third wife on the way, yet he devolves back into the promising theater composer he once was in 1957. Radcliffe’s Charley Kringas, who in a nationally televised meltdown on the “Today” show on NBC (brightly-hued peacock included) caused an incurable rift in the two’s working partnership and friendship, while Mendez’ Mary Flynn is the epitome of an embittered drama critic and washed-up novelist who never saw a bottle of booze she didn’t care to pick up.
Friedman has made the script sound more human and, by doing so, made the characters a bit more human as well.
The set – Soutra Gilmour did the fantastic scenic and costume design – is intended to represent Frank’s mid-century modern Bel Air house but it’s adaptable enough to be converted into other spaces including the boarding area and gangway of a ship. The costumes – trigger warning: there’s a lot of plaid – make it clear throughout the show who is portraying whom as Frank is almost always in a black suit, Charley rocks it in argyle, and Mary is in a variety of different outfits that defy description..
Tim Jackson’s snappy choreography with music directed by Alvin Hough, Jr. keeps the audience merrily rolling along and the sound (with sound design by Kai Harada and Dave Anzuelo) is worthy of a concert hall, not a 198-seat theater in the East Village.
Merrily We Roll Along
Through January 22, 2023
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
New York, N.Y. 10003
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one interval
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(Photo: Accura Media Group)