Finally, Merrily!—that was the critical consensus last December when a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily, We Roll Along rolled into New York Theater Workshop.
Now, 42 years after the original problem-beset production, Merrily is back where it belongs—on Broadway, at the Hudson—and looking great. The score is stacked with prime Sondheim (“Good Thing Going,” “Not a Day Goes By,” et al), and it’s explosively well-received by audiences—much like an “Old Friend,” you might say.
The lead trio whose friendship doesn’t go the 20-year distance has been immaculately cast—and acted accordingly, by Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez, and Daniel Radcliffe. As their story plays out, Groff is a composer whose ambitions carry him to an empty, loveless room at the top, Mendez is a critic-novelist (patterned after Dorothy Parker) whose unrequited love for him drives her to alcoholism, and Radcliffe is the wordsmith teammate that he cruelly exiles.
“The cast is absolute perfection,” their director Maria Friedman tells Observer. “And they are very kind people as well—they are not just good actors. That quality lies across the script, and it just flies across to the audience. You are compelled to love them and care about them.”
True to the musical’s source material (a 1934 Kaufman-and-Hart play—which also flopped profoundly on Broadway), the lives of these three besties is tracked in reverse, starting with the disenchantment of middle age and ending with the hope and idealism of youth.
The original Merrily folded after just 16 performances, silencing the glorious teamwork of Sondheim and director Hal Prince from 1981 till 2003 when they tried (in vain) to get Bounce to Broadway.
But Merrily never really went away, with stagings (and tinkering, including new songs) in the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s, and 2010s. This current resurrection is such a dead-on production one might suspect it’s an inside job, and, in a sense, one would be right. Freidman is also an actress who has been inside the play herself, in a 1992 UK production, rummaging around while playing the lady novelist. “As a young girl, working with Steve and his book writer, George Furth,” she says, “I still remember how much fun we had, how much laughter there was in the room. If you look at the script cold, it could be melodramatic.
“The thing with Steve—in all of his work—is that he leaves room for a big, beating heart and a kind of humanity,” she insists. “He writes so cleverly that, by just saying his words, you’re smart immediately, so then your job is to fill in those wonderful gaps. Every time you see a Sondheim, you are seeing the different spirts who inhabit those roles constantly reinterpreting him.”
Friedman has done her share of that reinterpreting, starting with Dot in the 1990 London production of Sunday in the Park with George and following that with an Olivier Award-winning portrait of Fosca in a 1996 production of Passion.
Since then, she has practically done the whole Sondheim canon—the exceptions: The Frogs, Wise Guys, Company, Do I Hear a Waltz? and Assassins. “But,” she notes, “I did songs from those shows in my cabaret act. Also, I played every part there was in A Little Night Music—and I directed it.”
Over the years, because of her professional association with Sondheim, she has developed a special empathy with the layers of his writing. (In addition, he happened to be the godfather of one of her sons and a mentor to the other.) “It’s become very easy to direct Sondheim’s work—because he is so brilliant. You just listen to the heartbeat of it, make sure you’ve cast it perfectly and rigorously interrogate the lyrics so that they stay alive and you move swiftly through the dark. He has such a light touch and so much nuance—in the music with counterpoint, countermelody and counterthought. There are always layers of subtext to bring to the surface. He gives a foundation for you to look into humanity of how we operate in our relationships.”
It was her husband, singer Adrian Der Gregorian, who suggested she take up directing. “I don’t like to sitting around idly, but I didn’t know what to do. He said, ‘Why don’t you do Merrily? You were in it. I was in it. At least you know it. You should start with something you know.’ So I staged Merrily, We Roll Along at the [Central School of Speech and Drama] drama school for about three months, between jobs. That is how I started doing this. It felt like I had just put on a gorgeous pair of comfortable gloves.”
That was in 2012. When folks from London’s Menier Chocolate Factory say that drama school production they immediately asked to make her official directorial debut with a revival of Merrily, which was then transferred to the West End.
“Again, we were told that we got it right,” she recalls. “That was the production that Steve saw. For all sorts of reasons, I couldn’t bring it here until now. We were—twice before—going to come in. It was very much Steve’s wish that this production come to New York. Ten days before he died, he told The New York Times we were on our way. I know that it was a love letter to me because he tied up lots of loose ends. The tragedy for me is that he’s not here. I did it for him.”
Eventually, that version evolved into a London production, which won 2014’s Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival, and that’s what—with new songs and revisions—made it to Off-Broadway last year. Its sold-out run, properly Americanized, is what has at last made it back to Broadway.
An eight-time Olivier nominee and a three-time winner, Friedman was scheduled to make her Broadway debut in 2005 in the title role of The Woman in White, an 1860 Gothic novel set to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, but just as previews were beginning, she was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. She left the show for surgery but bounced back in less than a week for the opening, and she managed to finish the run. What kept this crisis from being thoroughly traumatizing was Der Gregorian, who came over from London to co-star and never left her side throughout the whole ordeal. “He walked me to every hospital appointment and looked after my two boys,” she said. “We just fell in love, and, after 18 years, we’re still in love. I’m lucky.”
For the first week of September previews in this country, Merrily, We Roll Along racked in $1.3 million. “I think it’s the zeitgeist,” Friedman offers by way of an explanation. “It’s a moment in time. People who love Sondheim want anything he did at the moment. They want to feel close to him. I think it’s the perfect casting, and I think it’s not because I got it right but because it’s a masterpiece. It’s one of the great, great pieces of musical theater. It belongs on a Broadway stage. It’s not made for little spaces. It’s got big ideas, and they just come pouring out.”