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MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG: AT LONG LAST, WHOLE

(This review was written for BLICKPUNKT MUSICAL, the German magazine on international musical theatre for which Mr. Dwyer is US reviewer.)


More than 40 years after its non-illustrious (some say disastrous) Broadway premiere in 1981 - closing after 44 previews and 16 performances - Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along”, in its current Broadway revival, has finally found its full dramatic expression, moving from cult status to its proper place in the Sondheim canon. “Merrily’s” long route back to Broadway has been circuitous; over the decades various concert, Off-Broadway and regional productions took turns trying to make narrative sense of the story, told in reverse chronology, about three friends finding their way through career and conflicted relationships.


This fully satisfying - yes, let’s call it definitive - revival has its origins in a production, directed by Maria Friedman, who still directs, at The Menier Chocolate Factory in 2012. A West End transfer followed in 2013. The production later had a run in Tokyo, then a limited pre-covid run at the Huntington Theater in Boston. Finally, with its current - and best - cast, the show landed in New York at one of the most prestigious Off-Broadway theaters, New York Theater Workshop in late 2022. This reviewer has seen all of the Friedman-directed versions since the Chocolate Factory, except Tokyo. Indeed, dear reader, this reviewer saw the original in 1981. (Yes, I am that old.)


Based on a 1934 play of the same title by the great American playwriting team of George K. Kaufman and Moss Hart, writer George Furth (who also wrote Sondheim’s “Company”) opens “Merrily” in 1976, at a swell Malibu beach cocktail party hosted by rich and famous songwriter turned film producer Franklin Shepherd (definitively played by stage/screen/film star Jonathan Goff), whose ego is out of control, as is his marriage to wife #2, former musical Broadway star Gussie Carnegie (Krystal Joy Brown). A visiting guest is his oldest friend from Frank’s early New York days, Mary Flynn (a splendid Lindsay Mendez, last seen on Broadway in the revival of “Carousel”), would-be novelist and now theater critic. She sets her alcoholic rage on the shallowness of Frank’s film projects; he bristles when a guest mentions that his best friend and former songwriting partner Charley Kingras (a pitch-perfect Daniel Radcliffe of stage and Harry Potter fame), from whom he is estranged, has just won a Pulitzer Prize. Furth’s script, tracks - in reverse - the dissolution of Frank, Charley and Mary’s shared values and dreams from when they first met in New York City as struggling writers in 1957.


The keys to the long-overdue success of Merrily is twofold: impeccable character casting and incisive directorial understanding of character. The two are intertwined. As the story reveals in reverse, in Friedman’s hand, it becomes evident that Frank, Charley and Mary’s characters don't change their fundamental personality. Rather, circumstances and personal choices determine which aspect of their personality prevails; this version, for the first time, clarifies every consequential turn in Furth’s original book.


In the case of Frank, his ambition is overriding; his drive is omnipresent even as a naive young adulthood, and the choices he makes - in his marriage and divorce, in how he relates (or doesn’t) to Charley and Mary - bring him to a point of commercial success and personal failure. Goff, with his open-faced countenance, deftly disguises Frank’s singular ambition of success, whatever the terms.

Similarly, Charley, charmingly played as a brainy nerd by Radcliffe, makes his choice plain; he leaves his creative partnership with Frank because his terms of success are more precise. He’s driven by deep intellectual convictions; indeed he loses a best friend but he realizes his personal dream of creative authority and independence.


As for Mary, she carries the burden of unrequited affection - really, love - for Frank for a lifetime. Her tough, wise-ass demeanor disguises her tender emotional psyche. She tries to mediate the relationship between Charley and Frank, but she still ends up alone

Director Friedman’s wise directorial choices include not reviving the clumsy anthem song at a school reunion that bookended the original production (and which has been dropped from subsequent versions). Blessedly absent too are all the hackneyed “turning the pages of calendar” production tricks used to date the action backwards. Show-biz inspired set design and period costume design by Soutra Gilmour works splendidly.


With wonderful orchestrations by the inimitable Jonathan Tunick, who orchestrated the 1981 original, Sondheim’s score has never sounded better; his lyrics work as well to develop character as they do in his hits, like “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd''. The overture, hyped-up and brassy, suggests the headiness of show biz but has enough dissonance to suggest the downside of a creative career.


The jaunty (by Sondheim measure almost cheery) “Old Friends”, a melody used throughout the underscore, not only celebrates the trio’s original friendship but also plays as a reminder of days gone by. Charley’s “Franklin Shepard Inc” - a tour de force for any performer - illuminates the differences between Charley and Franklin better than any dialogue could. The wistful ballad “Growing Up , added by Sondheim years after the original for a regional production, delivered by Gussie, the Broadway starlet Frank leaves his marriage for, ironically turns upside down the values Franklin chooses between.


Emblematic of the “Merrily’s” theme, “Good Thing Going” starts out as a sweet, little duet that reflects Charley and Franklin’s salad days; seduced by Gussie, Franklin allows it to become the an extravagant number in her next Broadway musical. One of my favorites is Mary's “Charley”, typical of Sondheim’s elegiac, little melodies; it’s her heartfelt lament for yesterday. The wrenching “Not a Day Goes By”, ironically, is performed by Franklin's first wife, but it’s really Mary’s torch song; Franklin was always out of her romantic reach.


The final number, “Our Time” hits me in the gut every time. The trio meet for the first time on the rooftop of their Brooklyn apartment building in 1957. With wide-eyed wonder, they spot Sputnik in the night sky. Grabbing the future as theirs, they proclaim “We're the movers and we're the shapers. We're the names in tomorrow's papers. Up to us, man, to show 'em”. Their mirth belies their real choices ahead.




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