MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG: Sondheim’s Sisyphus — Review
At some point down the line, someone decided to call Merrily We Roll Along Stephen Sondheim’s “problem musical,” setting forth a vexing series of events ranging from the most annoying person you know constantly talking about how, actually, it’s good, to theatre artists continuously trying to “crack it.” The fact of the matter is that not much has changed since its famously floppy 1981 Broadway debut: it showcases the worst of Sondheim’s preachier tendencies, mashes together elements he’d either already done or had not yet perfected, and is burdened with a tedious book, by George Furth, that goes absolutely nowhere, with not a single surprise along the way. And yet, as two of its characters say, we go way back but seldom forward.
The latest production to roll along is Maria Friedman’s, which began at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in 2013, and stopped at Boston’s Huntington Theatre in 2017 before landing at New York Theatre Workshop, with a starry cast headlined by Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez, and Daniel Radcliffe. Friedman’s is likely the closest the material will come to a cohesive, coherent whole but, though I thoroughly enjoyed its Boston iteration, where Eden Espinosa shined as Mary, something got lost on the way down the coast.
Its unusual structure, long believed to be the main source of its problems, follows the story’s main trio, college-age writer friends Frank (Groff), Mary (Mendez) and Charley (Radcliffe), in reverse order. We meet them in middle-age, long broken apart by fame and fortune, and trace their relationship back to its scrappy beginnings stargazing on a Manhattan rooftop. Through the years, collaborators Frank and Charley are broken up by the former’s eye for pragmatic self-actualization, and Mary’s unrequited love for Frank, and booze, leads her downhill.
The backwards chronology is not the problem; it’s that the book is thuddingly literal, filled with cliches, and runs its thinly sketched characters on the same autopilot tour of The Cost of Success we’ve been playing since the Year One. That we know just where the story will end doesn’t help, of course, sapping any possibility for catharsis, but there is still room for nuance and deft characterization to surprise us. Furth and Sondheim do not fill that in.
Thus the entire show hinges on believing the trio’s ties, and that a combination of the unruly sands of time and the fickle fingers of fate were able to undo them. Despite the main cast’s able efforts, they do not pull this off. Each has their own charm, Radcliffe especially shining with a vibrantly angsty energy, but I never really believed these people were ever close, or held each other to the lofty artistic standards they did back in their youth.
Frank’s career choices, as channeled through Groff, seem sensible. Though I loved Radcliffe’s performance, and felt for his character’s falling to the side, I too would drop someone who took to national television to belittle and humiliate me. And if Mary is supposed to be hopelessly in love with Frank, as characters often remark, you do not get that from Mendez’ performance. In a near three-hour production, the only time I felt something was when Gussie’s husband (Reg Rogers), hip to his wife’s indiscretion but soldiering on, begs God that she not leave him. It’s almost a throwaway line, muttered before swigging back a toast in mixed company, but the only time where I felt real emotion flash across the stage.
Sondheim’s lyrics are usually psychological dialectics—Georges is as richly shaded as Dot, Bobby scores as many anti-relationship points as his married friends can counteract, Sweeney is matched by Mrs. Lovett. This one, with its platitudes about selling out and friendship being a garden to which one must tend, could’ve stayed on the couch. His score here takes the Muzak-style genericness Company almost teeters on and runs, a circusy plunking that grates with its repetition.
There is almost a 0% chance that this production won’t transfer to Broadway, and to that I say: good. Let’s get this mediocre musical out of our systems and permit ourselves the notion that the man who gave us Company, Gypsy, Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, Follies, A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, Pacific Overtures, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and West Side Story was capable of striking out, and move onto other works, other revivals. If Carnegie Hall’s concert production of his Anyone Can Whistle earlier this year proved anything, it’s that it is perfectly fine to enjoy aspects of a work without bending over backwards to “fix” or “prove” its worth.
Merrily We Roll Along is in performance through January 21, 2023 at New York Theatre Workshop on East 4th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.