Broadway's 'Merrily We Roll Along' shines, 40 years after its debut
How did I end up here? What are those moments, decisions and coincidences that shape our lives, sometimes leading us down pathways once unimaginable, for better or for worse?
Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” asks those questions in this season’s acclaimed Broadway production. The show answers them with a time-shifting tableau of friendship and lives gone awry that starts in the present and takes the audience into the past song by song, choice by choice.
The production is a revised version of Sondheim’s notorious 1981 mega-flop, bolstered by three veteran Broadway actors — Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff and Lindsay Mendez — whose characters bring the audience along through decades of friendship, starting with the painful end, and ending with a poignant, promise-filled beginning.
Radcliffe and Groff play Frank Shepherd and Charley Kringus, a once inseparable composer and lyricist respect. Mendez plays writer Mary, a lifelong friend devoted to the duo’s success but painfully and unrequitedly in love with Frank, as he spins off the rails.
From the first days of rehearsal, the love and connection between the trio made telling the story of a friendship formed in the glory of youth and left behind feel as painful as a broken heart, Groff says.
“As an actor playing love relationships, there’s obviously an intimacy and a challenge to finding romantic chemistry,” he says, “but in some ways, I think it’s harder to fake friendship.”
This trio of friends, particularly Mendez and Groff, crush each other’s hopes and dreams on stage every night.
“I feel such a closeness with the two of them as my friends offstage. And we’ve done so much work in these characters,” Mendez says. “It’s quite easy, honestly where things are really fractured.”
Critics said part of the problem with the original version of “Merrily We Roll Along” was that these characters were played by young actors, while the current cast ranges from mid-30s to early 40s.
Radcliffe says he can’t imagine tackling this story as a teenager or in his early 20s.
“Although to be fair with this show, I can just sort of look at Jonathan and Lindsay and the rest of our company. I love them so much,” Radcliffe says. “To be able to look around and feel that and not have to work to feel it is a rare privilege.”
Numbers like Radcliffe’s patter song, “Franklin Shepard Inc.,” tell a story of friends who love each other but want different things. Radcliffe thinks of it as a love song by someone trying not to lose a friend — and handling it badly.
“I think that there is a take on this show, which is that Frank is a jerk and he makes all the wrong choices. And don’t get me wrong, he makes a lot of bad choices,” Radcliffe says. “But I do think, particularly the disagreement between him and Charlie, it’s really just about Charlie wanting a lot more of Frank in his life than Frank is able to give him after a certain point. That’s a really beautiful, sad thing.”
A decade ago in London, director Maria Friedman’s production of “Merrily We Roll Along” starred Mark Umbers as Frank. Groff says he shed tears for the rest of the show after hearing Umbers deliver the line, “I’ve made only 1 mistake in my life, but I’ve made it over and over and over. That was saying ‘yes’ when I meant ‘no.’”
When Groff started learning the song “Our Time,” which the three characters sing at the end when they first met, he couldn’t sing it without crying. The song reminded him of the optimism and dreams he held when he first moved to New York at 19.
“The fact of life is that we’re all changing all the time,” Groff says. “It’s challenging to allow yourself to change. It’s challenging to allow your partner to change or your friend to change.”
The sadness of “Our Time” hits the cast and audience every night, Mendez says.
On one sold-out night, the original cast sat in the audience and took a bow at the end. Radcliffe says he often thinks about how they recorded the original album the day after learning the show was closing — a sad but bonding experience for the actors.
“I think of the original ‘Merrily’ group as not dissimilar to the group of us that all did ‘[Harry] Potter,’” he says, “This huge thing that happens to you very, very early on in your life, and how you find your way out of that or how that affects you has an, perhaps, oversized place in your life than it should.”
The revival has been a complicated, joyous experience for the original cast, Mendez says.
“We tell them all the time, ‘You guys are why this is happening,’” she says.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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