Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez in NYTW’s Merrily We Roll Along. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It was one of the most coveted tickets to be found over the past few months in NYC. And I felt ever so fortunate to know that one was waiting for me, even if I had to wait until early January to be able to utilize it. But there was no surprise there that everyone wanted to see this show. With a cast like the one assembled, duking it out in one of Stephen Sondheim’s classics at the intimate New York Theatre Workshop in downtown NYC, the buzz was always going to be big. Merrily We Roll Along was primed for this. It was a legendary Broadway failure back in 1981 when the esteemed director Hal Prince somehow stumbled in reverse, unable to find a way through the rewinding of the engagement of three old friends. The Broadway musical shockingly closed after 16 performances and 52 previews that first go-round. People keep trying though, year after year, to get it right, and somehow that rightness has evaded all. Maybe not completely.
Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical throws it all in reverse, in an attempt to see what exists if we could stand and examine time differently, win or lose. I’ve seen a couple of attempts at perfecting their complex creation, to different levels of success. The one in 2019 by Fiasco Theater, with Roundabout solidly behind, was dizzily fun but problematic. It tampered confidently with the difficult but brilliant show, yet somehow it ended up leaving it just as troublesome as it was before.
My first real experience with this complex show was the 2012 production at NYCC Encores! starring Lin Manuel Miranda (Charley), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Mary), and Colin Donnell (Franklin). I loved the confusion and embraced the sentimentality and passion, but it also remained just out of reach. That production was followed closely by London’s Menier Chocolate Factory‘s West End transfer in 2013 starring the glorious and delicious Jenna Russell, Mark Umbers, and Damian Humbley and directed by Maria Friedman. Watching it on the big movie screen here in NYC, I was engulfed in delight (even though my friend thought the American accents were horrendous). That production won the Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical at the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards. It felt pretty darn close to perfect, or at least the best I had seen. So far.
But now, the same director, Maria Friedman (Old Vic’s High Society), has resurrected her production, unleashing the same formula that elevated that Menier Chocolate Factory and Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company production to such grand heights. She somehow found that mysterious key to make this rewinding work, probably better than anyone has done before. Driving it backwards down the road with a wise assurance. And with this version’s celebrated stars at the wheel; Jonathan Groff (Broadway’s Hamilton; Off-Broadway’s Little Shop of Horrors), Daniel Radcliffe (Broadway’s The Lifespan of a Fact; Old Vic’s Endgame), and Lindsay Mendez (Broadway’s Carousel; RTC’s Significant Others) putting it all together in their disillusioned manner, the choices made solidify the experience, finding acute understanding in their backward momentum.