Since its original premiere on Broadway in 1981, Merrily We Roll Along has struggled to find footing. However, as one of his last acts, Sondheim reworked his famous flop into the commercial success that it now is.
In 2022, the New York Theatre Workshop housed a much-anticipated revival of the show starring Jonathan Groff as Frank Shepard, Daniel Radcliffe as Charley Kringus, and Lindsay Mendez as Mary Flynn. In the fall of this year, it moved to Broadway with the same cast.
I attended the show on December 6th, 2023, after holding tickets since mid-June. To say I was excited was an understatement.
For a bit of back story, I have loved Sondheim since I first heard Into the Woods as a freshman in high school. That cast album awakened my love for musical theatre, just as my first Shakespeare drama in middle school was my awakening to theatre.
Two of the more complicated aspects of this show that I was concerned about are that the story progresses in reverse and that many background actors play many roles. If not appropriately staged, these details can kill the show — as Sondheim found when he first produced it in the 80s.
Thankfully, Frank Shepard is portrayed as the self-centered person that he is, but with still enough charm to keep you intrigued about what made him this way. A huge testament to that is Groff’s performance as the character.
He has this innate ability to play a total asshole while also retaining just enough charm that you think, “Maybe, just maybe, he’s misunderstood.” We’ve seen it repeatedly in the roles that Groff has played, whether on Glee or Looking.
Somehow, by the time we see Frank and Charley starting it all that night on the rooftop, we are convinced that Frank has made some terrible missteps on the path that’s his life, but he’s still worthy of our time and compassion.
Despite all the evidence against him, the audience believes that Frank can somehow turn his life around and fix his friendships. If only he could avoid his relationship with Gussie entirely — considering how terrible she is toward his friends from the start and how vain she is.
It’s also highly captivating to see the slow decay of Mary Flynn’s spirit in reverse. We see her as this inconsolable drunk who shows up to Frank’s party out of courtesy, and we are left sympathizing without knowing precisely what created this version of her.
Mendez takes this character off the page and gives her depth, dynamic, and empathy. We could’ve easily dismissed Mary as this lovesick, never moving-on, alcoholic if not for Mendez humanizing her.
After all, which of us hasn’t fallen for a friend only to wake up one day and realize we’ve wasted so much time on someone who couldn’t love us back? By the time we reach the end of the musical, we find out what nugget of Frank was given to Mary to keep her hanging around all these years.
“I’m gonna marry this girl,” is all it took for Mary to hold on hope for him over the proceeding decades. It’s sad and could potentially be pathetic; only Mendez never lets us perceive Mary as such. She holds desperately to Mary’s compassionate nature, which convinces us to sympathize with this unlucky-in-love woman.
Finally, in terms of performances, there is the always captivating, always versatile Daniel Radcliffe as Charley. Considering how complex and multi-faceted Charley is as he jumps around from anger, sarcasm, wit, and pure joy, the best actor to play him would have to be Daniel Radcliffe.
Honestly, Daniel Radcliffe’s comedic timing adds an extra layer to his showstopping number, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” It’s a timing that I knew he possessed going into it, thanks to Miracle Workers, and I was intrigued to see what it would add to my favorite song from the show.
The British actor has always shown he can hack just about any role you put in front of him. Just look at not only his filmography but his stage history as well. He has played everything from a boy wizard to a young disabled man to an undercover agent as a neo-Nazi and now Charley Kringus.
Radcliffe brings a certain charm to the needed role, considering just how crushed he becomes thanks to his friendship with Frank Shepard. Charley is a highly talented lyricist who takes years to pull himself out from under the ego of Frank Shepard, all because they have been friends since they were young.
It’s a complicated history, and the ease at which Radcliffe switches from a disenchanted Charley to a professional yet eager-eyed hopeful is a skill that should be talked about more. By the end, much like Mary and Frank, audiences are sympathetic to Charley’s future plight, and some might even be rooting for him to walk away from Frank’s idea that night — though we know he won’t.
Aside from the performance, the staging of the show itself was spectacular. With how it is set up, the fancy house Frank Shepard owns in Los Angeles can easily be transformed into various housing iterations throughout his life.
From a rooftop filled with hopes and dreams to a crappy dive performance venue to his quaint apartment just before he makes it significant to the space where all three of them wrote musicals and novels filled with joy. With just a few simple movements and some slight design coverups, this set serves many purposes.
This itself proves the magic of theatre and our imaginations. After all, the three walls are easy enough for us to imagine just about anything within them.
Overall, Merrily We Roll Along is a heartwrenching reminder that every step we take leads us down a path that either pulls us closer to the ones we love or pushes us further away. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but one that Frank’s life demonstrates so well.
Can we pinpoint one particular moment as the catalyst for who we are today? Or is it a series of events? Either way, you only have one life, so make sure it’s a good one.