Back in March or April, our NYC concert/theater-going group saw that one of our favorites, Jonathan Groff, would be co-starring in Merrily We Roll Along with Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez. The tickets were discounted and rtb, peg, mollyT, and I would not be seeing the musical until November, so I figured that was plenty of time to find out what it was about.
Of course, I never looked it up. But it was difficult not to know anything since there were raves for the off-Broadway revival and Broadway previews. The show was playing to sold-out audiences and the three stars were doing the talk show circuit – probably especially sought out since movie and TV stars could not promote their movies or shows because of the SAG/AFTRA strike and you have an original cast member of Hamiltonand Harry Potter in the cast.
So, I went into the show knowing that it was a Stephen Sondheim musical (music and lyrics – book by George Furth and directed by Hal Prince and based on a George S Kaufman/Moss Hart play) that had failed during its original run in 1981 and only ran for 16 performances (44 previews). It is the story of three friends through the years with the story running backwards beginning in 1980 going back to 1955 when they first meet. Also, the show had been reworked.
Later, I found out that one of the changes is they go from 1976 back to 1957. Not sure why – they could have had their start at an older age without changing the year. (They had binoculars and I immediately knew the year without looking at the Playbill because not only was it the year I was born but my parents called me Sputnik because I was born a few weeks after it was launched.) And, 1976 is probably a more exciting time to end because of its drug-fueled orgies without the guilt and awareness that came in later years.
During intermission, I looked up the original cast and found out that it had been Jason Alexander (Joe), Giancarlo Esposito (valedictorian), and Tonya Pinkins’ (Gwen Wilson) Broadway debuts. It was also the debuts for several other of the cast members with semi-familiar names. I did not recognize the stars’ names in the moment but looking them up online, I see that I do know the two men from plays/movies/TV. Looking at the original cast list, there are roles that are not in the new production and new characters were added to this production. They had cast the original show with teenagers and young adults. Interestingly, one of the leads has two actors playing the role – the same role whose main actor was replaced in previews. The other actor plays him at the oldest age. And I see that there is a documentary about the flop – The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened that I now have to find. Several of the songs have become cabaret favorites, so the show was not a complete failure until its current revival.
First – the Hudson Theatre. By now, I think I must have been in every Broadway theater in NYC but I really do not know if I have. But each time, whether the theater is familiar to me or not, the older theaters especially, always impress me.
rtb first noticed the mini-chandeliers.
It is a small theater and we noticed there was no orchestra pit, but they had the orchestra in a small glass room up above on the stage on audience left (you can see a bit of it in the photo that leads this write-up). There were also plants on the top as if it was a terrace. Instead of being on the sides of the stage, the speakers sat on the light array. When the orchestra played the overture, I got angry because the sound was coming directly at me in the balcony through the speakers instead of coming up from the stage. It just sounded very wrong.
The sound for the performers was good. It was not over-mic’d and I really could not tell if they were mic’d or not. It sounded as if they were not because it did not sound as if their voices were coming out of the speakers in front of us. If they were not, that would make even more sense for the orchestra to be in the box, so you could control the levels along with the actors. Also, their speech sounded natural, which is a plus, but it meant that I missed some of the dialogue and jokes because it was not LOUD and they were not speaking as Actors. I guess I am at the age where I need supertitles for everything.
The set was simple. There was the loft area with the orchestra and a series of big windows at the back that could be the entrance to a Central Park West terrace or to a Bel Air pool or windows of a brownstone or the window to a TV director’s booth. The large oval next to the windows could be a painting or a porthole. The stairs led up to a bedroom or was a gangway to a yacht. And the scene transitions involved the other cast members singing while bringing in a piano or carrying it out or bringing in or carrying out furniture and other props. It was all very smooth and organic.
Before I continue, I want to say that I loved the musical, but I was not humming any songs when I left the theater. That does not mean that I did not love the songs or the performances. There is a funny line where Joe (Reg Rogers) criticizes Franklin’s (Groffsauce) music by saying that no one hums Stravinsky and I wondered if that was something that was told to Sondheim. I also thought it was a bit too long but not sure where I would make cuts. Since I did not see the original, I cannot know whether all the changes were for the better. I think that more than anything, the charisma of the three leads carried the show to places others could not have taken it to. They did add Frank Jr (Max Rackenberg on our night – Brady Wagner on other nights), who is played by an adorable boy, who even gets to sing a few lines of “Merrily We Roll Along” near the end. Also, Gussie’s (Krystal Joy Brown) role was expanded with songs added for her and that was a great choice because she is a force of nature. I read that Sondheim wrote additional songs for some of the productions of the musical that have happened since 1981 (the current production is the first time it is back on Broadway).
The backwards concept especially worked for the musical – it would have been boring if it had been staged from 1957 to 1976. And because of the backwards staging, there were lines said later in the play that elicited an ‘aaah’ or ‘oooh’ or laugh from the audience because we knew what would be happening in their future. There are also laughs or groans because of something said in 1976 or 1973 and we know how it eventually turns out.
The story – it starts with movie producer Franklin celebrating another film success. His friend of many years, Mary (Lindsay Mendez), is there but she is not celebrating. She wrote a successful novel in her youth and now works as a critic. They talk about their other old friend Charley (Daniel Radcliffe), who we meet in the next scene, when three years earlier the future successful solo playwright insulted Franklin on national TV. Charley and Franklin used to successfully collaborate on Broadway musicals until Franklin caught the Hollywood bug. And Mary is now more interested where she can get her next drink.
Because the musical runs backwards, it starts on a sour note and ends on a happy note. We see the youthful Franklin and Charley meeting Mary for the first time on the rooftop of their apartment building at the end, where they dream of the future.
More than the other two, Groff had this amazing ability to transform the timbre of his voice so that he was aging backwards. By the end of the musical, he sounded like a kid who just got out of the army instead of the jaded middle-aged man he was at the beginning, and he also looked like a much younger man unsure of himself.
Radcliffe had a song that moved so quickly and had so many words that ran into each other that it was astonishing that he could not only memorize it but perform it eight days a week.
And Mendez has a beautiful voice and was able to make us like her and feel badly for her no matter what her character said. Plus, you felt for her as she worked the hardest to keep the friendships and relationships alive.
At the beginning, you feel sorry for Gussie and how she is treated but as the musical moves on, you find out that she may deserve some of the mistreatment because of her earlier treatment of others.
Rogers plays a similar role that he always plays on stage, TV, or movies. He seems to be the go-to actor for that kind of sad sack.
Katie Rose Clarke has a small role as Beth but looms large in Franklin’s life because she is the mother of his son and knows and believed in the better part of him.
The cast is diverse, not only in color but in body type. They all do a great job – Sherz Aletaha (Scotty/Mrs Spencer/Auditionee); Maya Boyd (Mimi from Paramount/Make-Up Artist); Leana Rae Concepcion (Claudia/Newscaster/Auditionee); Corey Mach (Tyler); Talia Simone Robinson (Meg Kincaid); Jamila Sabares-Klemm (Dory/Evelyn/Pianist); Brian Sears (Bunker/Newscaster/Photographer); Evan Alexander Smith (Greg from Paramount); Christian Strange (Ru/Reverend); Vishal Vaidya (Jerome); Natalie Wachen (KT); and Jacob Keith Watson (Terry/Mr Spencer). Swings are Morgan Kirner (Dance Captain), Amanda Rose, and Koray Tarhan (Fight Captain).
I am not going to list the entire crew but here are few, all of whom (and the others not listed) also did standout jobs – Maria Friedman (Director); Tim Jackson (Choreographer); Jonathan Tunick (Orchestrations); Soutra Gilmour (Scenic and Costume Design); Amith Chandrashaker (Lighting Design); Kai Harada (Sound Design); and Cookie Jordan (Hair and Wig Design).
And finally the band – Joel Fram (Music Director/Conductor); Bryson Baumgartel (Associate Conductor/Keyboard); Vito Chiavuzzo, Steven Lyon, Rick Walburn (Reeds); Max Darché, Daniel Urness (Trumpets); Julie Dombrowski-Jones (Trombone); Laura Bontrager (Cello); Monica K Davis (Violin/Concertmaster); Chelsea Wimmer (Viola); Ray Kilday (Bass); Barbara Merjan (Drums/Percussion); Kristy Norter (Music Coordinator); Randy Cohen (Synthesizer Programming); and Katharine Edmonds, Alden Terry (Music Copying).
But we are not done. After the bows, the three leads came out to ask for money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. rtb leaned over to me and said that it seems to be the season for collecting money for that charity every time we go to the theater. Groff first read from a card and he started to hand it off to Mendez, who shooed the cards away and said she was off-book, which was very funny. Then Radcliffe said that in addition to the buckets out in the lobby, they were going to auction off a sheet of paper from a typewriter that was on stage that would be signed by the cast. Every night, according to Radcliffe, when he walked away from the typewriter, Groff walks over to the desk and types a different sentence each time. This time he wrote something about us being the best audience. Does he write that every night of the auction? Probably. Radcliffe said something about most of the audience spending a lot of money for the tickets, so we would not have any money to bid but in a NYC crowd of this size there were definitely some deep pockets.
The bid was opened at $100 and quickly escalated, first by hundreds and then suddenly we were at $1000 and then it suddenly went up by increments of $500 and finally sold for $3000. It happened so fast that the audience had whiplash as we kept looking at each bidder.
Go see Merrily We Roll Along before it closes.
By Carene Lydia Lopez