“Merrily We Roll Along” is a musical that works only if you have seen it before. Based on the George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart 1934 play (which has never received a Broadway revival), the musical by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth starts at the end of its story about jaded movie people and ends several years earlier when they are young theater artists filled with hope. In other words, the characters start obnoxious and then slowly, very slowly, win our attention and sympathy.
By the time intermission rolls around, you may wonder why you’ve been asked to watch such a herd of sour, materialistic, alcoholic, backbiting sellouts. You will not be asking yourself that question at intermission if you’ve already seen Sondheim and Furth’s 1981 musical “Merrily We Roll Along” at least once before and you happen to be sitting in the Hudson Theatre for this absolutely riveting production of that troubled show. The first-ever Broadway revival of “Merrily,” the musical, opened Tuesday at the Hudson.
The word “troubled” does not begin to describe the original 1981 production of this show, which remains the most vivid disaster of my Broadway theatergoing life. I attended a preview about two weeks before the show opened, and the audience so rejected Harold Prince’s staging that they immediately put up an acoustic wall of resistance to what they were witnessing. I could hear the actors, but I could not really understand the actors. Prince had cast the show with teenagers and very early 20somethings, and that juvenile ensemble made sense only during the short prologue where they sing the upbeat title song, staged at the characters’ high school graduation. All the actors then threw off their caps and gowns. Underneath, they were wearing sweatshirts and jeans, but soon started adding feather boas and berets and cigarette holders to impersonate middle-age characters in Bel-Air in 1976 at the opening night party for a big Hollywood movie. It was like watching a high school production of “Company,” and the preview audience at the old Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) was not buying it.
Since then, revivals of “Merrily” have wisely cast the show with actors closer to the age of the characters at their most mature. It allows us to identify with them at the get-go. Then as the story moves gradually backward, we accept the discrepancy in age when they’re playing college students at the end of the show. I’ve seen a few of those revivals, and while each has been an improvement on the original, this Broadway revival directed by Maria Friedman and based on her Mernier Chocolate Factory production in London, is the first that not only works completely but is downright wonderful — with just a very few caveats.
I think a great deal of my pure enjoyment this time around came from having seen not only the original but Friedman’s Off Broadway incarnation of this production last year at the New York Theatre Workshop. Even then, I found it off-putting that the lead character Franklin (Jonathan Groff) was being verbally beaten up by his good friend Mary (Lindsay Mendez) at the Bel-Air party and then, in the following scene, his other best friend, Charley (Daniel Radcliffe), verbally humiliates him on a TV talk show.
Watching the show on Broadway, I found myself concentrating less on Mendez and Radcliffe’s back-to-back screeds and drawn more to Groff, who almost singlehandedly, and in a very quiet way, makes this revival drive forward while going backward on all eight cylinders. He plays off the over-the-top performances of his two costars — who bring a sly Oliver-and-Hardy chemistry to the stage, Radcliffe being Stan to Mendez’s Ollie. Mendez entertains us with her nasty one-liners and Radcliffe stops the show with his powerful, yet nuanced rendition of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”
Charley and Mary are telling us in no uncertain terms that Franklin is a major sell-out, but Groff doesn’t play him as a jerk. Instead, he makes the character the quiet eye of the hurricane of resentment (justified or not) swirling around him. For the first time ever, I actually felt the need to protect the guy from his two best friends. After all, there are much, much worse things in life than ending up a successful Hollywood producer of shlock movies. Franklin never sexually harasses anyone, uses the wrong pronoun or votes Republican. By today’s standards, he’d be a pillar of virtue in the film community.
Groff’s portrayal of this unsympathetic character (until well into the second act) recalls the equally inspired casting of Jim Parsons as the bitchy Michael in the first Broadway production of “The Boys in the Band.” Groff and Parsons’ innate likeability gives each actor more than a few minutes of stage time to take an audience by the hand and lead us on their respective character’s journey.
As big a mess as the original 1981 production might have been, that “Merrily” did a couple of things right that Friedman has changed. The original show began at a high school graduation, and as I recall, Franklin (Jim Walton) stood center stage as if the class valedictorian. Friedman instead has Groff wandering the stage as the chorus sings “Merrily We Roll Along” as if to scold him for his future (or is it past?) bad behavior.
More significant is that Franklin in the first act no longer sings the show’s best song, “Not a Day Goes By,” which is now used to introduce his estranged first wife (Katie Rose Clarke). Nothing makes an audience bond with a character faster than a good song. Compared to Sondheim’s famous serial killer, Franklin is a piker of a bad guy, but we follow Sweeney Todd more willingly because he gets to sing “The Barber and His Wife” and “My Friends” early in his show and quickly follows with “Pretty Women.”
The Franklin character needs “Not a Day Goes By” to bolster his humanity, and it would help if he, and not Mary, introduces “Old Friends,” another catchy tune.
No additional writer is listed in the credits, but Furth’s book has been immeasurably sharpened up. Similar uncredited work also improved Furth’s often sitcom-sounding book for the last Broadway revival of “Company.” It also doesn’t hurt that Reg Rogers is on board to enliven several scenes in this “Merrily” revival. Playing the burnt-out theater impresario who leads Franklin and Charley astray by producing their one Broadway hit, “Musical Husbands,” Rogers emerges as both the show’s funniest and saddest character. No easy feat.
It’s here that one might wish that the uncredited writer(s) did more work on the story. Even in 1981, a lot of Furth’s condemnation of Hollywood rang false. What lyricist would refuse to sign a contract to have his one Broadway show turned into a movie, as Charley does here? And judiciously cut from this revised book is a catty reference to over-the-hill movie stars who slum it on Broadway to stage a comeback. A few months before “Merrily” opened in 1981, Elizabeth Taylor had made her Broadway debut in “The Little Foxes,” and that below-the-belt crack did nothing to endear Sondheim aficionados to his newest musical. Kaufman and Hart wisely kept their play focused on the theater, avoiding that all-too-easy New York condescension about everything born and grown on the West Coast.
This revival adds a Sondheim song, the plangent ballad “Growing Up,” not heard in the original. It delivers a much-needed sample of Franklin and Charley’s promise as songwriters, since it was written for their supposedly great show, “Take a Left,” that they never finish. Otherwise, we are stuck only with the absolutely dreadful cabaret number “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” (as in the Kennedys) to show us what these two songwriters created before they sold out. “B&J&J” is Sondheim at his rinky-tinky worst.
Given a choice to see a show called “Musical Husbands” and “Take a Left,” I’d buy a ticket to “Musical Husbands.” Better yet, I recommend getting a ticket to see this wonderful “Merrily” revival and buy another the following week to enjoy it even more the second time.