Merrily We Roll Along – Back to the Future with A Beloved Flop
In 1935, George F Kaufman/Moss Hart’s Merrily We Roll Along opened on Broadway and laid an egg, yet when Hal Prince’s wife Judy suggested he do a musical about teenagers, the producer/director found it viable. George Furth’s 1981 book changed playwright Richard Niles into composer Franklin Shepard (Jonathan Groff), painter Jonathan Crale became lyricist Charley Kringas (Daniel Radcliffe), novelist Julia Glenn, journalist then critic, Mary Flynn (tonight Jamila Sabares-Klemm). The scenario was moved from 1916-34 to 1955-80.
Composer/lyricist and puzzle aficionado Stephen Sondheim may have been attracted to the piece because of the challenge of its backward sequence which emerges not only plot-wise but also with reprises performed before songs from which they stemmed. Frank’s first wife Beth sings “Not a Day Goes By” first in anger and despair at their divorce, then earlier when they marry.
Katie Rose Clarke, Jonathan Groff, Krystal Joy Brown, Jacob Keith Watson, Talia Robinson
The musical ran two weeks at the Alvin Theatre, closing under a barrage of negative reviews. In The New York Times, Frank Rich declared, “While the new version is rewritten and updated, it repeats the defects of the original text – even as it adds more of its own.”
For those few unfamiliar with this ersatz phoenix rising from its ashes via numerous revivals – two by current director Maria Friedman, the Richard Linklater documentary or Sondheim’s own books – Merrily tells the story of changes in the lives of three bosom buddies from bitter, disillusioned present backwards to bright-eyed, idealistic beginnings. The musical’s first outing was cast entirely with young actors. (This is not.)
Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, Reg Rogers, Krystal Joy Brown
Friends Charley and Mary, two wives, a mistress and his son are all adversely affected by Frank’s self serving, though not entirely unsympathetic, climb to the top. This production spotlights his character more than previous productions. It opens not at college where the now famous alumnus is asked to give a graduation speech (“The Hills of Tomorrow” is gone), but rather at his colorless, impersonal, mid-century modern Bel Air home where we find him lost and alone.
Soutra Gilmour’s set couldn’t be more bland and uninviting. Surely one of the protagonist’s women would have chosen and/or decorated the house. Gilmour’s costumes, which change during each era, are uniformly ugly; mud colored with unattractive prints or fashioned in cheap, metallic thread through polyester, all unflattering. Not a single New York or Hollywood denizen has taste or a penchant for color?! Visual decisions take the entire show down a notch.
“How Did You Get Here?” introduces a party celebrating Frank’s first film, a mass market sell-out. Mary, having been flown out to California, proceeds to get fall down drunk. She loudly castigates both her Jekyll and Hyde friend and his soulless guests. (Charley, now a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, has long been estranged.) Frank argues with wife Gussie (a sizzling Krystal Joy Brown) ending his second marriage. Time rolls back to 1973.
Lindsay Mendez, Katie Rose Clarke, Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe
Here’s where we’re treated to Radcliffe’s masterful version of “Franklin Shepard Inc.” Corralled into a television interview, Charley is by this time apoplectic with frustration at Frank’s making duplicitous deals instead of showing up to collaborate. He erupts on camera with surgical precision. It’s a great number made more so by the actor’s deft phrasing and palpable fury. The actor plays a sensitive, principled nerd with not a seam exposed. He’s believable, appealing, and often physically imaginative.
During the onslaught, Friedman has chosen to depict Frank as shut down. Groff looks blank. I don’t buy it for a minute. He’s been blindsided, publicly eviscerated by his closest friend and partner but registers nothing, not even surprise?! (Through much of Act I, the otherwise effective actor is wooden.) The composer’s evolution to unfaithful husband, neglectful father, pandering artist, and selfish friend follows – in reverse. We watch femme fatale Gussie take him from wholesome Beth (the excellent Katie Rose Clarke). Ruling his life with little resistance, she ambitiously steers him into lucratively producing B material. “Growing Up” works particularly well morphing from confrontation to seduction.
Further back we’re present at the opening of Frank and Charlie’s Broadway musical introduced by the kind of empty, flashy song usually given to a producer’s bimbo girlfriend. A red velvet curtain drops overemphasizing the gratuitous parentheses. Still further in the past, the young men perform their own material in a political revue, this time in front of a wall of silver streamers unlikely to be found at any Greenwich Village coffee house. Beth is hired to be “the girl,” then against her parent’s wishes, marries Frank. For a nanosecond we see Mary’s heartbreak of unrequited love.
The three-part “Opening Doors” shows parallel struggles as the young friends compare notes. Specificity and sync are wonderful. Finally, the beginning (end) manifests. Roommates Frank and Charley run into a pajama-clad Mary on their building’s roof in order to see Sputnik passing. There’s also a momentary glimpse of Evelyn, Mary’s roommate, and Charley’s wife-to-be who’s intermittently mentioned, but never again seen. Clever. “Our Time” finds them wide-eyed, mutually supportive, hopeful.
Lindsay Mendez, Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe
The piece has some fine songs and a universally accessible message, but remains overly cluttered. Frank’s friend Tyler – who invented the answering machine?, the composer’s young son, Beth’s parents, and some (overplayed) newscasters could be easily jettisoned with no sense of absence.
Director Maria Friedman, who once acted in the play, creates fluent sequencing, though never as smooth as Harold Pinter’s economic Betrayal which also plays backwards. Scenes featuring the company, arrive indecisive, messy. “The Blob”- Frank’s hangers-on and so-called beautiful people – mass together very like those in the nightclub of Sweet Charity. Friedman does better with fewer interrelating players.
Jonathan Groff’s Frank is allowed to come alive in Act II, but we like him less because of Act I’s portrayal. I’m sorry to have missed the talented Lindsay Mendez as Mary. Stand-in Jamila Sabares-Klemm exudes no warmth and is too aware of the audience. A call out is due to Reg Rogers as Gussie’s husband, Joe Josephson. Rogers is droll in 1950s filmic fashion, a complete and credible personality. The company, alas, is lackluster and uneven. Casting-wise it blatantly ticks off every box in age, nationality, and color. One assumes adjustments will be made for Merrily‘s imminent return to Broadway.
Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations are, as always splendid. Sound design by Kai Harada serves the orchestra, but slights singers whose efforts lack brightness. A tussle choreographed by Unkle Dave’s Fight-House is realistic.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Cover: Daniel Radcliffe (Charley), Jonathan Groff (Frank), Lindsay Mendez (Mary)
Merrily We Roll Along
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
Based on the original play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Directed by Maria Friedman
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
Sold out, but one can try the standby line