Merrily We Roll Along | 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. | New York Theatre Workshop | 79 East 4th Street | 212-460-5475
A recent article reported that more people in their fifties are living alone, and not by design. Lacking family, friends, or children, this untethered cohort may have a higher risk of medical issues. Not the sunniest dispatch for your humble single critic—or the protagonists in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along, currently in revival at New York Theatre Workshop. Sondheim’s brittle yet sentimental masterpiece manqué about young friendship poisoned by greed and egomania begins with the estrangement of three friends in acrid middle age and rewinds to earlier, fresher times when they first pledged fidelity. I explained the premise to an old schoolmate. “How depressing,” was her quite reasonable take.
Those of us who haven’t spawned families or cling to them for fulfillment have much at stake in lasting friendships. “How did you get to be here?” goes a choral refrain—a query that disillusioned artists Mary Flynn, Charley Kringas , and Franklin Shepherd, our heroes, must silently ask themselves as they view their sad, solitary forties. Mary is drowning in drink, Shepherd has licensed his soul to Hollywood, and Charley (who does have a wife and kids) stews in resentment. When the three honor their fellowship in a ritual toast—“Here’s to us, / Who’s like us? / Damn few”—they pinky swear. It’s a cute gesture but also a warning: the fifth is the weakest digit. As easily broken as a wish made upon a star.
Merrily, which closed after a humiliating 16 performances and a month of previews on Broadway in 1981, also bruised the bonds between Sondheim, then 51 (who told his agent no Broadway composer did any good work past 50), and his longtime director-producer Hal Prince. After crushing reviews and audiences leaving in droves, a depressed Sondheim felt abandoned and betrayed. He considered quitting musicals entirely. Still, in the years after the debacle, he and book writer George Furth tweaked the material for La Jolla Playhouse (1985) and London’s West End (1992). The current version is pretty much the one that was performed at Encores! in 2012 featuring Colin Donnell, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The following year, English director Maria Friedman opened her staging at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory to celebratory reviews.
Nearly decade on, Friedman’s elegant, emotionally searching revival is Off Broadway and it’s remarkably satisfying—and sold-out, thanks to ex-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe (a talented comic crooner) as angsty Charley. One also must factor in cult adoration among musical-theater fans (of all ages), in addition to the inspired casting of super-charismatic Jonathan Groff as Franklin and iron-lunged Lindsay Mendez as Mary. Operating at their prime, these ace performers anchor the show and sing the daylights out of the scrumptious score. Don’t be surprised if a Broadway transfer is announced before the January 21 closing. So: Did Friedman fix the flop, widely believed to yoke one of the master’s catchiest, most touching scores to one of the sketchiest books? Pardon my Sondheimian ambivalence: yes and no.
How tempting to take a big critical swing and demolish 41 years of opinion, to assert that only now can we appreciate Merrily’s ethical nuance, its acute longing for lost American innocence. But the reverse-order dramaturgy (similar to Pinter’s Betrayal but diffuse) and Furth’s still-underwritten book limit how much we can invest in these doomed souls—especially Frank, the narcissistic cipher at the center. You want to love these kids, but the structural trick (inherited from the 1934 Kaufman and Hart play) leeches empathy even as the characters grow more lovable. Except when the trio sings, which, unfortunately, isn’t all the time.
There’s still so much to enjoy along the way. Thanks to superlative casting and canny direction, this may be the finest, most coherent Merrily you’ll ever see. Friedman supports her stars with an exceptionally attractive and versatile ensemble—including the raffish tummler Reg Rogers, knockout diva Krystal Joy Brown and adorable ingénue Katie Rose Clarke. Friedman places Franklin front and center in his sleek Bel Air house (Soutra Gilmour’s unit set is chicly modern, if it provides diminishing returns), turning the action into a melancholy memory play that unspools from 1976 to 1957. We begin at a coke-fueled Hollywood party under Ford and end on a New York City rooftop watching Sputnik under Eisenhower.
This is the frame that allows Frank to devolve (evolve?) from prosperous, shallow Hollywood producer to where he began as a twentyish nobody: a gifted Broadway composer. (We’ll ignore the fact that even in 1981, the composer-to-movie-mogul pipeline was a stretch.) Accompanying Frank and serving as foil and ally as he marries, divorces, and sells out are playwright Charley and novelist-turned-drama-critic (boo!) Mary. Charley and Frank are a team; Mary’s single published novel seems to bring her more grief than pride. She declines into an overweight drunk, while Charley crucifies Frank on live TV for spending more time chasing Hollywood riches than writing, which torches their partnership.
Such a showbizzy milieu would be inside baseball if Sondheim’s marvelous score didn’t capture a constellation of relatable, poignant emotions. He distills the excitement of collaboration and creation in the jubilant Act II trio “Opening Doors,” in which Frank, Charley and Mary hymn the joys of the struggling artist. Among other themes Sondheim spins into 32-bar, extremely hummable gold there’s morbid heartbreak (“Not a Day Goes By”), the bitter joy of cynicism (“Now You Know”), and an unforgettable, rollicking anthem of allyship, “Old Friends.”
The nine-member orchestra under Alvin Hough, Jr.’s direction comes through rich and juicy (sound designer Kai Harada gets the balances just perfect). Sure, you pine for twice or three times the number of instrumentalists, but such are our frugal times. And for what it’s worth, despite all the Jule Styne-esque brassy bliss of the score, Sondheim crafted it around a jazz band, appropriately scaled for the intimacies of friendship.
The tunes are simply splendid . . . and, I hate to repeat it, the book is not. If Furth could have done with back story and relationships what Sondheim reveals in the characters’ inner lives, Merrily might have been a hit. Friedman directs every line and lyric within an inch of its life, layering in doubt, revelation, hope. But drama keeps coming up short. Take the assumption of innocence. Furth sketches a fable of youthful idealism corrupted by expediency and infidelity. It would take a whole song-less play to achieve the requisite detail to believe in that journey. Yet here is Mary singing to Charlie, imploring him to join her in a fantasy of the good old times, suddenly realizing she’s kidding herself:
Nothing’s the way that it was.
I want it the way that it was.
God knows things were easier then.
Trouble is, Charley,
That’s what everyone does:
Blames the way it is
On the way it was—
On the way it never ever was.
Score and book don’t have to repeat each other’s labor, but they must pull in the same direction. To make Merrily work you would need to streamline the plot, dump several secondary characters and punch up the leads, and even excise a couple numbers (like Tom Lehrer–like novelty song “Bobby and Jackie and Jack”). Then again, this oft-carved patient might die on the table.
But I’m probably engaging in the same self-deception as Mary: blaming Merrily being flawed now because everyone says it was then. Living in the moment, not fretting about past or future, I can honestly say I adore this score and this cast and you might, too. If Sondheim and Furth were writing now, with multiverses in vogue, who knows? They might have explored parallel realities, a multitude of alternate trajectories. Sondheim often wrote about the road you didn’t take, how there are plenty of roads to try, warning us to “never look back.” At the end of the day, this is the road he and his friends laid down; see where it takes you.