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Theatre in Review: Merrily We Roll Along (New York Theatre Workshop)

Lindsay Mendez, Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe. Photo: Joan Marcus

"Yesterday is done/See the pretty countryside;" so goes the opening lyric for Merrily We Roll Along. But yesterday is never done for a storied flop that has been revived more often than many blockbusters, if only because people can't get that gorgeous Stephen Sondheim score out of their heads. A disaster in 1981 -- I saw the third or fourth preview, performed in front of an openly hostile audience -- it sent shock waves among musical theatre fans: How could Sondheim and director Harold Prince, our musical theatre gods, birth a turkey on this scale?

Most 16-performance bombs slink off to obscurity. In the case of Merrily We Roll Along, the revivals began only two years later, subsequently rolling out at the rate of four or five a decade. Sondheim and book author George Furth continued to make revisions as director after director strove to solve the show's manifold problems. (In the last decade, New Yorkers have seen James Lapine's concert edition at Encores! at City Center and Fiasco Theater's revival, presented by Roundabout Theatre Company.) Now comes Maria Friedman's production at New York Theatre Workshop, based on her 2012 staging at London's Menier Chocolate Factory -- and, thanks to a first-class cast, it is about as good as Merrily can get. Note the qualifier.

In the run-up to that calamitous 1981 opening, the complaints were universal: Furth's book was a string of clichés. The young cast -- most of them in their late teens or early twenties -- was ill-equipped to portray showbiz sophisticates with ice water in their veins. The scenic design (bleachers and lockers) and costumes (sweatshirts bearing the characters names) were confusing and ugly. And, four decades later, these remain the issues to be addressed in any revival, which Friedman meets with mixed success.

Not that she can do much about the script. For those of you who came in late, the book, based on a little-known George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play, traces the fates of three friends over the course of two decades or so: Franklin Shepard, once a promising Broadway composer, later an adulterous, money-hungry Hollywood producer; Mary Flynn, an alcoholic former best-selling novelist; and Charley Kringas, previously Frank's librettist and, ultimately, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. The action, beginning (in this version) in 1976, rolls backward, detailing the many compromises and betrayals that drive the trio apart, ending on the night in 1957 when, standing on a Manhattan roof waiting for Sputnik to pass overhead, they pledge eternal friendship and fidelity to art.

By removing the show's original conceptual framework -- which bookended the action with graduation ceremonies set twenty-five years apart and featured "The Hills of Tomorrow," a melody reworked into several subsequent numbers -- Sondheim and Furth arguably damaged the show in ways that can't be fixed. The many musical bridge sequences, originally delivered by young people commenting on the sins of their elders, no longer make much sense: Who are these people wandering through Frank's many homes, kvetching about time's passage and shouting "Never look back"? Altering the book to focus on Frank's affair with Broadway star Gussie, the wife of his producer Joe Josephson, has only made it more turgid, adding to the slightly stale, Valley-of-the-Dolls atmosphere that has always clung to it. The opening number, "That Frank," sung by a chorus of sycophants after the premiere of Frank's blockbuster film, is inferior to its predecessor, "Rich and Happy," in which Frank tries to convince himself that he has everything we wants. "Growing Up," added to track the progress of Frank's fling with Gussie, is a low-energy number that only underlines the show's already incessant moralizing.

On the plus side, Friedman's smartly deploys a talented thirtysomething cast adept at evoking fresh-faced youth and disillusioned middle age. Jonathan Groff's choirboy looks, incisive acting, and lovely tenor give Frank much more character and shading than usual. The role, as written is a nearly total blank, relying entirely on the actor playing him to make something out of nothing. With Groff, we get a strong sense of the conflict -- artistic achievement versus fame and wealth -- that is eating Frank alive. Daniel Radcliffe gives Charley, Frank's severest critic, a sparkplug energy that keeps him from being a mere nudge; his rendition of "Franklin Shepard, Inc.", Charley's on-the-air meltdown over his best friend's grasping ways, is a totally spontaneous outpouring of frustration and rage. As rewritten, Mary has been sadly coarsened and stripped of her dignity -- she basically becomes a falling-down drunk because Frank won't give her a tumble -- but Lindsay Mendez's infectious grin and wisecracking style, not to her mention her heartbreaking way with a ballad, go a long way toward redeeming the character. All three share a chemistry that makes their original three musketeers-style partnership seem entirely plausible.

In addition, Krystal Joy Brown's provocative, high-style hauteur helps explain why Frank might fall for the shallow, self-absorbed Gussie. Reg Rogers is an ideal Joe, a heat-seeking missile ineluctably drawn to money and publicity. Katie Rose Clarke is touching as Beth, Frank's unhappy, bourgeois first wife, although somebody -- either Friedman or choreographer Tim Jackson -- has staged her Act I solo, "Not a Day Goes By," in ludicrously melodramatic fashion, having her throw herself to the pavement in a fit of despair.

But those songs...In a single evening, you get three top Sondheim ballads plus half a dozen or more gems. "Not a Day Goes By," heard twice, is one of the most heart-wrenching items in the songwriter's catalogue, matched by the introspective, melancholy "Good Thing Going." "Franklin Shepard, Inc." is a tense one-act play in song. "Now You Know," in which Frank's friends urge him to start over after an ugly, scandalous divorce, brings with cynicism and nervous energy. "Bobbie and Jackie and Jack" is a note-perfect pastiche of the kind of cheeky, satirical revue material that thrived Off Broadway in the '50s and '60s. "Opening Doors," in which Frank, Charley, and Mary, run around town, trying to jump-start their careers, is a genuine showstopper, a blessed relief from the sour attitudinizing of the earlier scenes. And, despite everything, when the young Frank, Charley, and Mary are joined by the company in the aspirational ballad "Our Time," a lump inevitably forms in one's throat.

Before the production makes its Broadway transfer next fall, let us hope that Friedman and production designer Soutra Gilmour will give the scenery and costumes a second look. (Gilmour, whose Broadway designs for Betrayal and & Juliet are top-notch, is struggling with a show that has eluded so many others. Prince always insisted that his inability to visualize the show was a key to its initial failure.) The action unfolds in Frank's Hollywood house, a minimalist, Asian-influenced interior marked by white walls and blonde wood accents; other locations are suggested using backdrops and curtains. It's an acceptable solution for a small theatre, but now is the time to consider working in more evocative period details. The costume design, on the other hand needs a total rethink. The men spend much of the first act in patterned Sansabelt slacks and flowered shirts, looking like a bunch of singles-bar losers looking for a love connection before closing time. A party set in 1962 features women in black-and white A-line minis with white go-go boots, a look that wouldn't become popular for several years. (Mary is supposed to feel awkward about attending this bash but putting her in an unflattering prom dress is entirely unnecessary. And enough with the use of berets to suggest hipster status.) The action unfolds at a time when the passage of two or three years often yielded vast changes in style; addressing this would be a major improvement. (Amith Chandrashaker's lighting and Kai Harada's sound are both extremely well done.)

To be sure, Furth's book has its moments of amusement. (Party Guest: "I wrote the screenplay to Frank's movie." Mary: "Your secret is safe with me.") The book cleverly calls out Frank Sinatra's real-life recording of "Good Thing Going" as an example of Frank and Charley's success. And Gussie's moment of triumph, belting the same number on a Broadway stage, remains an over-the-top treat. But the show remains a kernel of emotional truth (the loss of true friendship) wrapped up in tinselly show business truisms, the most egregious of which is that writing Broadway musicals is an exalted pursuit while filmmaking is a moronic, money-grubbing affair mostly conducted on casting couches. (The argument is a little more nuanced than that, but still.) The portrayal of shining ambition thwarted by sex and mammon worship remains more than a little naïve, but least the three stars deliver the songs in all their power. If Merrily We Roll Along is, now and forever, a heartbreaker, at least at New York Theater Workshop it sometimes breaks your heart for the reasons the authors intended. --David Barbour

(21 December 2022)

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