With Radcliffe, Groff and Mendez, Sondheim’s ‘Merrily’ finds greatness

Joan Marcus
Jonathan Groff and Daniel Radcliffe in “Merrily We Roll Along.”

NEW YORK – They said it couldn’t be done. But they’ve done it. And not only merrily. Magnificently.

The prevailing wisdom has always been that Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Along” was a melody-rich misfire. It opened on Broadway on Nov. 16, 1981, and closed 12 days later. The musical was revised over the years for productions off-Broadway and around the country. But it was never again mounted on Broadway.

That stalled course has finally been corrected, courtesy of the intoxicating revival engineered by director Maria Friedman at the New York Theatre Workshop, the East Village birthplace of “Rent.” This latest blessed event, which had its official opening off-Broadway Monday night, bears the earmarks of a historic reconsideration, one that will have Sondheim freaks whispering to themselves: “Remind me why I thought this show didn’t work?”

The solution seems to be have been a change in pitch – the emotional, not the musical kind. Long conceived by directors as a cynical commentary on the corrosive toll exacted by fame and money, “Merrily” actually finds its ideal expression when the focus is not on the societal critique, but the heart. Oh, the musical’s wry assault on the seduction of material success and quest for approval of the fickle chattering classes is still apparent. Only now, it’s more powerfully the collateral damage – the unraveling of a complex, bittersweet friendship among three creative people – that plays out as the show’s touching essence.

And no small part of the success is due to the three central performances, by Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez.

Sondheim and Furth – who also teamed up for the storied, Tony-winning “Company” (and the mediocre whodunit, “Getting Away With Murder”) – based “Merrily” on the 1934 comedy of the same title by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The play’s narrative twist is the plot unfolds in reverse, starting with the friends’ dyspeptic breakup and ending with the joyful promise of their youth.

The musical version, too, unfolds backward. But it will certainly propel forward the musical theater renown of Groff, Radcliffe and Mendez, the last a Tony winner for her portrayal of Mr. Snow-loving Carrie Pipperidge in the 2018 revival of “Carousel.” Friedman’s production is also a beguiling showcase for Krystal Joy Brown, who sinks her teeth ravenously into the role of Gussie, a driven, troublemaking actress. And as hapless roadkill in the extramarital affairs of their ambitious spouses, Reg Rogers and Katie Rose Clarke provide nuanced, sympathetic portrayals. Plus, Clarke gets to sing – twice – one of the most wrenching torch songs in the Sondheim canon, “Not a Day Goes By.”

Much care has been devoted here to Sondheim’s score, which sounds glorious in the Workshop’s intimate space on East Fourth Street. The contributions of music director Alvin Hough Jr. and eight other musicians, perched above Soutra Gilmour’s utilitarian set, underline the everlasting appeal of Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, in bouncy, plot-advancing numbers such as “Now You Know” and lilting anthems like “Our Time.”

Even more central to this “Merrily’s” strength is the emphasis on the trust and mutual support among Frank (Groff), his songwriting partner Charley (Radcliffe) and their pal Mary (Mendez), a novelist whose unrequited love for Frank erodes her good nature. Each of the actors potently reveals their need for one another. And just as crucially, they elucidate their feelings of betrayal, with Radcliffe stirringly seizing on the Act 1 showstopper, “Franklin Shepard Inc.,” to depict Charley’s TV interview meltdown over Frank’s choice to go Hollywood.

Radcliffe gets to show off his precision comedy timing as Charley, in a performance so charged-up you at times see his limbs vibrate. Charley’s faults as well as his virtues are on view here; he’s an artistic purist who cannot bear to release the reins on Frank. So when Frank opts for the crass, superficial rewards of making sentimental movies, Radcliffe’s Charley goes nuclear on him. Mendez provides a sensationally permeable portrait of melancholy Mary, the type of self-deprecating friend who’s always there for her best buds, even when her own hopes are being smothered.

“Merrily We Roll Along” upends your perspective: you see first that all the relationships are ill-fated, and only as the years roll back do you get to understand what these people mean to one another. It’s a mistake to make of this musical a clinical autopsy on our grasping culture; you need a purely emotional dimension, too, which is what Friedman and company have grasped. And critical to that success is Groff, because he embodies so effortlessly someone whom others always want to be around.

“That Frank” was a song Sondheim later added near the top of the show that helps immeasurably in establishing Frank at its thematic core. He’s both a magnet and a centrifuge, drawing people together and forcing them apart, by dint of his appetites. Groff’s charm is a valuable commodity in “Merrily,” because Friedman and Groff’s evocation of Frank is of a man who loses touch with people, but not entirely with his youthful glow: At both the show’s start and ending, he clutches a token of lost innocence: a copy of the first script Charley ever gave him.

Brown performs wonders with the parody number that opens Act 2, a version of Frank and Charley’s sweet ballad, “Good Thing Going,” that has been souped up with Broadway pizazz to propel the songwriters’ first big hit musical. Such moments are measures of Friedman’s affinity for “Merrily,” which she has directed before, and once upon a time, she played Mary herself.

The close contact shows in Friedman’s revelatory incarnation. We’re all “catching at dreams,” proclaims a lyric in the title number. With this production, the dream of a great “Merrily” has been caught.

Joan Marcus
Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez in “Merrily We Roll Along” at New York Theatre Workshop.