‘Merrily We Roll Alongside’ Theater Assessment: Daniel Radcliffe and Jonathan Groff Lead a Buoyant Revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Flawed Jewel – Hollywood Reporter
The 1981 musical that reunited composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist George Furth, a decade after their landmark work on Company, has the uncommon distinction of being arguably Broadway’s most revered flop. Merrily We Roll Alongside closed after simply 16 performances; audiences discovered the reverse-chronology storyline complicated and the choice to solid younger actors took the sting out of scenes with the characters in disillusioned middle-age. Opinions have been dismissive, and the expertise was so tough that Sondheim and his longtime director Harold Prince didn’t work collectively once more for greater than 20 years.
That fractured collaboration between two giants of the theater not with us has poignant echoes within the plot of Merrily, which was tailored from the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Nevertheless it’s not simply historic significance that makes the present play far more accessibly right this moment.
Points with Furth’s guide have been improved in numerous subsequent revisions and up to date audiences are little doubt extra open to each the difficult construction and to a plot that most likely appeared bitter in its day, tracing the trail of three mates from youthful idealism to jaded disappointment. The one constant issue with the musical’s fluctuating fortunes has been the fanatical love for Sondheim’s rating.
The sold-out revival that involves New York Theatre Workshop and is extensively anticipated to switch to Broadway has its roots in a 2012 staging at London’s Menier Chocolate Manufacturing unit, which moved to the West Finish the next yr. It’s directed with nice affection for the fabric — if not at all times with equal finesse — by Maria Friedman, whose historical past with the present dates again to enjoying feminine lead Mary within the U.Ok. in 1992. However the true promoting level right here is the fantastic principal solid, with three leads who may scarcely be higher.
Friedman opens the present and facilities your complete reflection on twenty years of friendship — shifting backwards in time from the late ‘70s to 1959 — round Franklin Shepard. A proficient musical theater composer who has chosen cash and success over artwork, 40-ish Franklin has turn out to be a Hollywood producer, dumped his first spouse for a nakedly bold alternative and spent years neglecting his mates. However the gathering of trendy Los Angelenos in his Hockney-esque residence to mark the premiere of a second-rate film is a hole celebration.
Franklin has at all times been an off-putting key character for a musical, a self-serving sellout whose private loyalty appears simply disregarded. Casting the infinitely likeable Jonathan Groff permits us to see the remorse in his decisions and the craving for the younger dreamer he as soon as was.
Groff has a wistful means of showing that every one the achievements, the comforts and the trendy entourage of Franklin’s excessive life can’t match the vitality of his youth, when the whole lot was about wrestle and promise and hope. There’s a contained anguish in his efficiency that’s very shifting. On the similar time, he acknowledges his frustration together with his mates’ reluctance to permit him to vary and develop.
Probably the most painful burned bridge is the top of Franklin’s collaboration with lyricist Charley Kringas, now a Pulitzer-winning playwright with whom he hasn’t spoken in years. Daniel Radcliffe had attraction and power in his 2011 New York musical theater debut, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. However as Charley, he digs deeper, tracing the street from an open-hearted younger man keen to vary the world to a tetchy neurotic, his resentment steeped in sorrow. Conversely, he additionally will get to point out off his bodily comedy abilities in some pleasant, understatedly goofy moments.
Charley’s massive first-act quantity, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” sung throughout a TV interview when he and Franklin have their first present on Broadway, is a withering takedown of a companion too busy schmoozing and exploring extra profitable avenues to work on their subsequent challenge. It’s a difficult music, extra of a tirade, and Radcliffe nails it with a gradual acceleration of indignant depth, whereas Groff’s Franklin sits alongside him on digicam, squirming with indignant humiliation.
The third factor of the trio is Mary Flynn, performed by the terrific Lindsey Mendez, a 2018 Tony winner for Carousel, with a pure heat that offsets the character’s rising acerbity. A duplicate editor who publishes a profitable first novel after which drifts right into a theater critic job when a follow-up guide fails to materialize, Mary largely drifts into booze and self-pity, quietly brooding over her unrequited love for Franklin and describing herself as “fats, drunk and completed.” The messy scene she makes at Franklin’s Hollywood get together is as a lot a violent severance of their friendship as Charley’s TV interview.
Friedman’s revival makes a powerful case for Merrily as a deeply affecting play, by which the songs and the drama are integral to at least one one other. Greater than every other time I’ve seen this present, the piercing melancholy of the three mates’ shattered bonds and illusions hits exhausting. The musical additionally reveals itself to be a worthy companion piece to Sondheim and Furth’s Firm, bringing the identical complexity of ambivalent emotions to friendship as the sooner present brings to marriage and romantic relationships.
Will there ever be an ideal manufacturing of the troubled musical? Laborious to say. The rating sounds superb right here, from the hovering choral preparations of the title music to the jaunty camaraderie of “Previous Mates,” to rueful reflections on particular person and collective loss like Charley’s “Good Factor Going” or Mary’s “Like It Was.”
“Now You Know” stays an uplifting ode to taking disappointment on board and rising from it, whereas “Opening Doorways” conveys the pure adrenaline rush of younger artists plugging away for recognition in one of many world’s nice tradition capitals and “Our Time” is a stirring hymn to youthful promise, each joyful and devastating, provided that what follows has already preceded. The rating actually is one among Sondheim’s finest.
Sure decisions made right here with the secondary characters appear questionable. As Franklin’s discarded first spouse Beth, Katie Rose Clarke is beautiful, however she’s been directed to play the histrionics on the expense of the beautiful music within the present’s most heartbreaking quantity, “Not a Day Goes By.” (Fortunately, that beloved commonplace is redeemed within the beautiful second act reprise, when Beth is joined by Franklin and Mary.) And as Franklin’s second spouse, the grandly named Gussie Carnegie, Krystal Pleasure Brown overplays the arriviste caricature, although the efficiency grows extra nuanced in her earlier years.
The larger points are with the bodily manufacturing. Designer Soutra Gilmour’s set works nicely for the Los Angeles opening scene however much less so again in New York, even when it does serve to anchor your complete play in Franklin’s reminiscences. The spatial dynamics are awkward, amplifying some clumsy blocking and inelegant transitions. If the present does switch uptown, Friedman would do nicely to rent a extra completed choreographer (Tim Jackson is credited with the rudimentary dance components right here), and even higher, a motion director capable of enhance the stream.
That mentioned, there’s a lot to be pleased about right here, not least a real feeling for the fabric that plumbs the emotional depths with out wading into low cost sentiment. The three leads alone might be trigger for rejoicing among the many Sondheim devoted, whereas newcomers to this flawed however lovely musical may be left scratching their heads over its business failure. With Richard Linklater’s movie adaptation — starring Ben Platt, Blake Jenner and Beanie Feldstein, and capturing at common intervals over the subsequent decade — no less than 10 years away from completion, it’s good to have the present again in what seems to be viable type to rewrite its Broadway historical past.
Venue: New York Theatre Workshop
Forged: Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez, Daniel Radcliffe, Krystal Pleasure Brown, Katie Rose Clarke, Reg Rogers, Sherz Aletaha, Leana Rae Concepcion, Carter Harris, Colin Keane, Corey Mach, Talia Robinson, Jamila Sabares-Klemm, Brian Sears, Christian Unusual, Vishal Vaidya, Natalie Wachen, Jacob Keith Watson
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
E book: George Furth, primarily based on the play by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart
Director: Maria Friedman
Set and costume designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting designer: Amith Chandrashaker
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Music course: Alvin Hough Jr.
Choreographer: Tim Jackson
Introduced by New York Theatre Workshop, by particular association with Sonia Friedman Productions, The Menier Chocolate Manufacturing unit