Merrily We Roll Along review – Sondheim’s flop finds new life

It is a paradox of human existence that if we live life forward, we understand it backwards. Only by traveling backwards from the present to the past can we understand the choices that shape and shape us. Fans of Stephen Sondheim, George Furth and Hal Prince keep coming back to the problem of what went wrong with Merrily We Roll Along, the legendary Broadway failure that ended abruptly in 1981. That’s probably why the spectacle experiences a significant revival every decade or so. We will surely understand one day. One day we will surely succeed.

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It is unlikely that anyone understands better than director Maria Friedman. A former actress and sensitive and lucid interpreter of Sondheim’s work, she brings clarity and humanity to the revival of Merrily, which is currently playing at the New York Theater Workshop. Informed by its 2012 production Menier Chocolate Factory, this version stars Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez as a trio of disillusioned friends after two decades amidst the gutters and stars of Hollywood and Broadway. Friedman’s interpretation will likely be considered a gold standard. But even here, despite that indelible bittersweet score, the gold is a few carats short. Some choices, it seems, cannot be undone, no matter how sharp our hindsight.

Famously, Merrily, based on a Kaufman and Hart play of the same name, is a story told in reverse. It begins in 1976, when the friendship between Frank (Groff), a composer, Charlie (Radcliffe), a playwright, and Mary (Mendez, in a role Friedman once played), a novelist-turned-journalist-turned-drunk. irreparably tarnished. Scene by scene the show recedes, finally landing in 1957, on a rooftop, with the three together for the first time, full of youth and promise. This means that sometimes we hear a pattern before we understand it, or encounter a cover (like the devastating Not a Day Goes By) before the original song sounds. (Speaking of sound, an excellent nine-piece band gathers in a loft to deliver the jazzy, brassy, ​​nostalgic score.)

There are stories of this disastrous first production of the audience leaving because they couldn’t understand the action, of directors wearing sweatshirts with their names on them so the audience could tell them apart. It seems unthinkable here. The storytelling is crisp and the time jumps, accentuated by Soutra Gilmour’s costume design, are clear and distinct. Gilmour also designed the setting, a mid-century Los Angeles mansion. Curtains and light fixtures swing, but the frame remains. We’re in Frank’s world, Friedman’s production suggests, inhabiting the sharpest corners of his memory.

Frank can often come across as a fool, sold out. But this framing device softens it. If he is dragged back into the past, then it must be his own unhappiness, his own irresolution that pulls him. It also helps that Groff has a childlike side to him and a kindness that supports that flexible, emotive voice. His Frank seems less cowardly than pragmatic.

Perhaps that was the real, unspoken problem with that first production, that audiences resisted following a character they didn’t like. But Friedman solved this problem. Frank is more likeable now, and his sins — wanting to make a little movie, questionable taste in second wives — are forgivable. In that light, he seems like a projection of Sondheim’s own anxieties. How did he reconcile commerce and art? What did he sacrifice along the way?

If Radcliffe’s vocals aren’t great, his distinctive energy is, and he brings a manic liveliness to Charlie, who leans toward something darker and less stable in the song Franklin Shepard, Inc. Mendez Has Heart and range and a rich, robust timbre. She doesn’t have absolute control of Mary’s depression, but she engages in the early scenes where Mary’s hope always outweighs her despair. Reg Rogers is generally exuberant as Joe, a Broadway producer, and Krystal Joy Brown is glamorous and mischievous as a woman.

How we grow older and presumably wiser, or at least more reconciled, is a recurring theme in Sondheim’s work and one that he elegantly articulates in the opening number. “What was the time? / How did you get here?” the chorus sings. Yet even now, in Friedman’s nimble hands, the answers offered by Furth’s book and even Sondheim’s lyrics seem thin. The structure means the characters can’t properly analyze or reflect on their actions and the script doesn’t give Charlie or Mary the attention they deserve.

Never mind. Just roll with it.

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