Broadway Review: MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (Hudson Theater)

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by Gregory Fletcher on October 16, 2023

in Theater-New York


It’s fitting that Merrily We Roll Along, which originally opened on Broadway in 1981 to mostly negative reviews, has been refurbished in the equally restored Hudson Theater. Both the theater and production make the perfect classy pair — stunning theater at its best in a stunning venue. And it starts with Joel Fram conducting one of the most exciting Broadway overtures (using Jonathan Tunick‘s original orchestrations) in theatrical history, rivaling the excitement of Candide, Mame, Gypsy, and My Fair Lady. Director Maria Friedman‘s 2012 Menier Chocolate Factory production of Merrily We Roll Along (filmed for cinemas in 2013 and then played Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop last year) has arrived on Broadway, bringing one of Stephen Sondheim‘s greatest scores, which includes beloved tunes like “Not a Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going,” back to where it belongs.

Lindsay Mendez, Jonathan Groff, and Daniel Radcliffe
Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Natalie Wachen

Perfectly cast by Jim Carnahan and Jason Thinger, George Furth’s difficult book, based on Kaufmann and Hart’s same-titled 1934 play — actually makes sense now. Especially contextually. The story has us looking back on what went wrong to three inseparable friends and artists as they negotiate loyalty, love and show business — backwards from 1976 to 1957. Although the show ends in 1976, we are watching it during an era in which the American Dream — youthful optimism turning into success — is under such scrutiny.

Reg Rogers, Katie Rose Clarke, Jonathan Groff,
Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez

The fact that the original production only ran 44 previews and 16 performances has more to do with an ill-conceived concept than a reaction to Sondheim’s lyrics and score, and presumably Furth’s book. As I see it, original director Hal Prince is the reason the original production didn’t work. With an interesting intellectual idea, young people (including Jason Alexander and Liz Callaway) were cast to portray mature complex characters that are 19 years older. Perhaps the idea paid off in the last scene when the characters are college age, but expecting them to pull off life’s disappointments and bitterness in the other three-fourths of the story was an unfair expectation.

The cast of Merrily We Roll Along

The book remains melancholic because it ends (or rather begins) with brilliant composer Franklin Shepard (Jonathan Groff) having sold out his artistry to become a wealthy movie maker. His novelist friend Mary (Lindsay Mendez), who has always been in love with Frank, becomes a raging alcoholic and rants about Frank’s failings before falling down drunk. Lyricist Charley (Daniel Radcliffe), Frank’s ex-writing partner, is out of his life permanently. Frank looks back over the last 19 years — revisiting choices made and where he veered from a preferred path — to examine how the two most important people in his life are no longer at his side. Because Friedman serves the production with expertise, restoring its reputation to pure brilliance, and because the last three numbers of the show are so full of optimism and youthful vitality, you may leave the theater darkened but you will be oh so uplifted at the same time.

Krystal Joy Brown and Jonathan Groff

While the libretto has also been reworked, there’s no mention or credit in the Playbill. Here, the original bookended graduation scenes are gone: The opening scene was originally at a high school graduation ceremony where Frank was the speaker and the graduates sang “The Hills of Tomorrow.” That song has been cut entirely, as has the graduation. Now the show opens at a cocktail party at Frank’s lavish California home. Additionally, there are two songs that first appeared in a 1985 production at the La Jolla Playhouse: “The Blob,” which was cut from the original, and “Growing Up.”

Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez

Groff is no longer the boy from Spring Awakening, but rather is a mature man who plays one who has been backed into corners with conflicting choices and regret. He gives a poignant, memorable performance that could earn him a Tony award. Because of Groff, we are rooting for the unlikeable Frank because he is such a likable actor. His competition, however, may very well be his co-stars Radcliffe and Mendez, who play the college friends he had hoped to work and spend a life together. The chemistry between the three is so electric and alive, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Their humor, subtext, and connection are so special that perhaps they should all three be nominated together for Best Performance in a musical.

Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, Reg Rogers, and Krystal Joy Brown

In the three supporting roles, Reg Rogers as producer as Joe Josephson, Katie Rose Clarke as Frank’s first wife Beth, and Krystal Joy Brown as secretary-turned-Broadway star Gussie, exhibit quite a journey with their roles, and by the end share extensive character paths that I didn’t see coming. The ensemble is equally as strong, most notably Jacob Keith Watson.

Katie Rose Clarke and Jonathan Groff

In the theater season following Sondheim’s death, he may, deservedly so, win a Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. And depending on how his latest work is reviewed, opening at Off-Broadway’s The Shed on October 22, Here We Are could move to Broadway and be a contender for Best Musical. It would be a fitting celebration of Sondheim’s lifework in the musical theater.

Krystal Joy Brown, Reg Rogers, Natalie Wachen, and the cast
Lindsay Mendez, Jonathan Groff, and Daniel Radcliffe

Choreographer Tim Jackson; designers Soutra Gilmour (Scenic & Costumes), Amith Chandrashaker (lighting), Kai Harada (sound), and Cookie Jordan (hair & wigs).

photos by Matthew Murphy

Merrily We Roll Along
Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street
ends on January 21, 2024 EXTENDED through March 24, 2024
for tickets, visit Merrily on Broadway

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