Forty-two years after it famously flopped Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along is rolling its way back to Broadway this fall. But first, an engagement Off Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop, the intimate confines of which provide an excellent staging point for a revival of a musical forever doomed, perhaps, to clunk along.

Knowing only Sondheim’s excellent score I saw a pared-down Off Broadway version three years ago. Given its backwards structure the compression to one act made sense–the twenty-or-so years the show covers fell away like the calendars in a movie montage–and I appreciated the accelerated pacing, all the quicker to get to standards like “Old Friends” and “Not a Day Goes By.” But it felt undernourished, and left me curious about the whole thing, or what the “whole thing” had become over 40 years. Sondheim and book writer George Furth, of the greatly esteemed Company, tinkered with it, trying to crack its code, and in 2012 Sondheim’s frequent collaborator Maria Friedman directed an acclaimed version in London. This is what’s here now, in two acts running roughly two hours and 45 minutes, and with Jonathan Groff as the success-driven composer-turned-movie producer Franklin, Daniel Radcliffe as the lyricist-turned-novelist Charley, and Tony winner Lindsay Mendez (Carousel) as their BF (sort of) F Mary you can’t say it lacks star power. 

But that only gets it so far. As it begins in the late Seventies career and emotional entanglements concerning the three principals are at their lowest ebb, with Charley, a Pulitzer winner at this point, absent from the L.A. scene that Franklin has embraced and he and Mary and everyone else literally at each other’s throats. It’s an ugly, party-smashing scene that the receding timetable does little to soften, as the trio become friends in New York and voice an idealism they can’t hold onto, as Franklin passive-aggressively makes his way through two marriages, Charley settles down into aloof disdain, and Mary…well, it’s never really clear what Mary, a bestselling novelist who’s become a drama critic (oh the horror), is up to, other than heavy drinking and vaguely pining for the self-absorbed Franklin. (It’s established that she and Charley set him on this road, encouraging him to try the Left Coast after his first marriage collapsed.) 

Here the A-list casting is a liability; Mendez is almost too good with the songs and zingers, revealing how empty the role of Mary is, as if Sondheim and Furth realized they needed a woman in the cast but couldn’t realize the part besides making her a second, wholly unnecessary Charley. (Franklin’s wives, Beth, the showbiz neophyte and mother of his neglected son played by Katie Rose Clarke, and Krystal Joy Brown’s haughty Broadway baby Gussie, are ciphers, even as the former gets a heart-rending reprise of “Not a Day Goes By” in the first act, before the number is heard in all its uplifting wistfulness in the second.) Radcliffe, an accomplished New York theater veteran by now, is in support here, and gives an embittered-to-energetic performance as a rising playwright brought down to earth by his collaborator’s compromises and need for success.

Franklin is a pill, and not an easy focal point, but the solution–get a performer as naturally appealing as Jonathan Groff to play him–is mostly a success. Groff digs as deeply into the unlikable character as he can, and uncovers some poignant moments in his reckless social climbing. His sins are forgiven when he sings; indeed, the show’s problems are masked when all three are engaged with the score, one of Sondheim’s liveliest, and he, Radcliffe, and Clarke bring down the house with the fun patter song “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” a nicely choreographed bit in the Camelot era. (Stage veteran Reg Rogers brings his own built-in charisma to the role of Franklin’s producer, Gussie’s former husband.)

This isn’t a concert staging, however, and the missteps can’t be avoided. (The story behind the show is told in the documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.) Furth’s book is on the level of camp like The Oscar, with its too-polished acid exchanges and rows that don’t feel terribly credible. His and Sondheim’s notion of Hollywood as a community of philistines, an age-old attitude, wasn’t exactly fresh in 1981, and in 2023, with Hollywood and Broadway on the ropes, it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic for a conflict that erupted in eras where both were riveting our attention. Their portrait of an artist is, to be charitable, retro–anyone wearing shades is a phony, and God forbid a budding creative should marry and have a child, wives and kids being the stranglers of talent. 

That all said when the leads emerge for their curtain call they seem genuinely fond of one another,  lifted by the collaborative effort and forging a community despite the dead spots in the conception. There’s chemistry there that the bland set and whirligig of not-quite-always-in-period costumes can’t defeat, and if those are fixed Merrily We Roll Along may have a second shot at finding the Broadway audience that eluded it as the Reagan years started. If not, well, maybe in an irony the movies will come to the rescue, if we live that long



About the Author

Bob Cashill

An Editorial Board Member of Cineaste magazine, Bob is also a member of the Drama Desk theatrical critics society in New York. See what he's watching on Letterboxd and read more from him at New York Theater News.

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