How Maria Friedman and Jonathan Groff cracked the riddle of Sondheim's 'Merrily'

Broadway loves nothing better than a happy ending, and that yearning for redemption was richly satisfied by this season’s standout production of “Merrily We Roll Along,” the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical that flopped when it premiered on Broadway in 1981 and has been desperate to prove itself ever since.

That there hasn’t been a Broadway revival of the show until now tells you all you need to know about the musical’s traumatic history. Sondheim, whose storied partnership with director Hal Prince went bust over “Merrily,” spent years toiling to fix the show.

There were a few successful outings along the way, most notably Michael Grandage’s Olivier Award-winning production at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2000. But not until now has anyone made the case that “Merrily” isn’t merely a favorite of Sondheim cultists but a musical masterwork that deserves to be placed in the same category as “Sweeney Todd” and “Sunday in the Park With George.”

How did director Maria Friedman finally solve the riddle? Casting, casting, casting is the obvious answer, though there’s a bit more to it than that.

Based on the play of the same title by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, “Merrily We Roll Along” tells the story of three friends — composer Franklin Shepard, playwright Charley Kringas and writer Mary Flynn — whose professional and personal dreams are tracked in reverse chronology. From the cynicism and compromises of middle age, the show wends its way back to the innocence and idealism of young adulthood.

Much can go wrong with a musical that has three central characters vying for your attention. But with its dream triumvirate — Jonathan Groff as Franklin, Daniel Radcliffe as Charley and Lindsay Mendez as Mary — the revival achieves a triangular balance that would have impressed Euclid. (All three performers, along with their director, are justly nominated for Tony Awards.)

The actors, idiosyncratic powerhouses, exude the chemistry of old chums. Yet what truly sets this ensemble apart is the way Groff, Radcliffe and Mendez draw your sympathy without dulling the musical’s sharp edges.

“Merrily” in the wrong hands can be a dyspeptic experience. But at the Hudson Theatre, where the revival has been enjoying its status as the season’s must-see hit (after a triumphant run off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop), the biting wit and thinly disguised rage coexist with implacable affection.

The sourness of the characters isn’t artificially sweetened, but bad behavior is shadowed by vulnerability. Hopefulness and regret are calibrated to perfection in a revival that ought to be filmed before it closes July 7. I’ve seen the New York production twice, and the psychology only deepens on subsequent viewing.

“I want to give huge thanks to the original production,” said Friedman, speaking on Zoom from a New York apartment on a busy afternoon that had her up and down to answer the door and turn off alarm reminders. (When you’re the toast of Broadway, life is one big happy interruption.) Before she said anything about her own production, she wanted first to give credit to the 1981 company, whose roller-coaster ride with the musical was brilliantly captured in the 2016 documentary “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.”

“Like all great things, this piece belongs to everybody,” she said. “Anyone who’s ever had anything to do with ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ — it touches them in a way that I think few other pieces of theater do.”

“Merrily” has certainly had a busy afterlife. “Most things that don’t work are buried,” Friedman said. “This show has emerged and emerged, because at its core it’s about the idea of time passing, friendship, the universality of compromise — things we can all relate to.”

The journey for Friedman, an esteemed actor who has made a stellar transition into directing with this musical, has been a long one. She played Mary in a 1992 British production at Leicester’s Haymarket Theatre, where Sondheim and Furth were tinkering with the show away from the New York-London spotlight. She was later invited to direct the musical at a drama school. Working with a cast of students, she came upon the same problem that foiled Prince’s original Broadway production.

“How can you expect an audience to believe that a 21-year-old is a double divorcée, an alcoholic, a sell-out with a huge success under his belt?” Friedman asked. “These students hadn’t even started yet, so it looked like they were all dressed up in their mommy’s clothes, pretending. And it broke my heart, because I was like, ‘There it is. That’s the issue.’”

When asked to name her career highlights, Friedman naturally begins with Sondheim. She won an Olivier Award for her performance in “Maria Friedman: By Special Arrangement,” her Sondheim-heavy one-woman show, and another for her performance in Sondheim’s “Passion.” Playing Dot in the British premiere of “Sunday in the Park With George” is another Sondheim milestone for her.

She feels indebted to his memory on both a personal and a professional level. “I owe him my friends, my house, the adventures I’ve had,” she said, acknowledging that it was through his artistry that she reached new heights of her own.

When the opportunity arose to direct “Merrily” at the Menier Chocolate Factory, an intimate London venue whose pocket-size stage has allowed directors to zoom in on a work’s dramatic essence, she understood both the gift and the responsibility given to her. Bracing revivals of Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George” and “A Little Night Music” were launched at the Chocolate Factory before transferring to the West End and eventually making their way to Broadway.

Friedman’s “Merrily” followed a similar trajectory, but the timeline was greatly extended. The current Broadway revival traces back to the 2012 production at the Chocolate Factory that moved to the West End the following year. (The production won the 2014 Olivier Award for musical revival.) The British cast was different, but Friedman has been building on her understanding of the musical, probing deeper into its secrets and untangling its interpretative knots.

One facet of the show that has been clear to her all along is that “Merrily” centers on Franklin. “This is Frank’s memory play,” she said with mathematical conviction. A central challenge of “Merrily,” she said, has to do with numbers: “With so many protagonists, who are you going to relate to?”

When she played the part of Mary, Friedman naturally operated on the understanding that this was Mary’s musical. As a director, she saw the bigger picture. Her goal was to streamline the experience for the audience “so that we could have a perspective” and not be flitting haphazardly from one character to the next.

In the back of her mind was an awareness, gleaned from having worked directly with Sondheim and Furth, of just how painful the musical’s initial reception had been for them.

“The number ‘Opening Doors’ is the most autobiographical thing that Steve ever wrote,” she said. “And it was about George, Hal and him making this show — through the night, playing, singing, daring, dreaming, eating, drinking. I mean just everything you want when you’re young. The shock, the shock of the response they got when the show opened, they really couldn’t work it out.”

“Merrily” begins at Frank’s swanky Bel-Air home in 1976. A hit movie producer, he’s hosting a party full of Hollywood swells and hangers-on. Frank’s gaga young mistress is there along with his second wife, a demanding diva unaccustomed to taking a back seat to anyone.

Watching it all with a gimlet eye, Mary — his old friend who’s still helplessly in love with him — takes Frank to task for sacrificing his theatrical partnership with Charley for hollow Hollywood success. Wobbly and waspish from booze, she makes a toast: “To Franklin Shepard, the producer. The man who has everything. And fat, drunk and finished, I would rather be me any day.”

When I casually remarked that for Sondheim, the idea of switching from composing to producing must have seemed like the ultimate compromise, Friedman vehemently disagreed. “I do not think that this is a piece about selling out,” she said. “And the issue isn’t that he’s producing but what he’s producing.”

Sonia Friedman, Friedman’s sister, happens to be not only one of the most highly regarded theater producers working today but also a lead producer on this revival. But Maria Friedman wasn’t simply defending family honor. She was making a larger point about Frank’s dilemma.

“Charley comes from a wealthy background, Jewish background, good parents,” she said. “He can afford integrity. In my version, Frank is a scholarship boy. He goes into the army and comes out looking for life and friends. He finds his friends. Right at the start of his life he says he wants success. Mary and Charley don’t have the courage to live life like Frank does. But Frank doesn’t have a choice.”

Sondheim may have come from an affluent family like Charley’s, but according to Friedman, the biographical parallels with Frank are unmistakable. “He’s got extraordinary charisma, real talent, and he likes having hits,” she said. “Steve wanted them too. Frank shares his belief that musicals are meant to be popular. They’re a way of stating important ideas, ideas that might make a difference. He believes in it. When he’s making music, he’s whole. He says, ‘If I didn’t have music, I would die.’ And we watch him die.”

The key to making this work — which is to say making us care — is the performance of Groff, who humanizes Frank’s choices without sentimentalizing his arc. Frank can come off as a narcissist, a guy who can’t resist whatever shiny object happens to be in front of him. But Groff, who received Tony nominations for his performances in “Spring Awakening” and “Hamilton” and deserves to win for his beautifully layered work in “Merrily,” reveals what Mary and Charley see in him and don’t want to give up on: an answer to their dreams of fulfillment — romantic in Mary’s case, artistic in Charley’s.

Groff was fresh from filming HBO’s “Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known,” a reunion concert with the show’s original cast and creative team, when casting director Jim Carnahan asked him about his interest in “Merrily.” He immediately watched the London production on YouTube and was struck by an image from the opening number that matched something he had just re-created for the “Spring Awakening” doc.

“Frank walks out with a red folder, and Mary and Charley come out and stand in the exact positions that John Gallagher Jr. and Lea Michele stood in at the end of ‘Spring Awakening,’ with the girl over the left shoulder, the guy over the right,” he said, speaking from his dressing room at the Hudson Theatre. “That is the final bit of ‘Spring Awakening’ and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s so weird. I just lived that.’”

But it was one of Frank’s lines that really clinched the deal for Groff: “I’ve made only one mistake in my life. But I made it over and over and over. That was saying ‘yes’ when I meant ‘no.’” “When I heard that,” Groff said, “I went, ‘Oh, my God. I have to play this. I have done that. I’m just learning how to not do that. Yeah, I get him.’”

“I cast Jonathan for many reasons,” Friedman said. “One, because he’s absolutely brilliant. But I cast a big heart, a beating heart.”

Under a strict moral accounting, Frank can’t help coming up short. In “Finishing the Hat,” part of his two-volume set of collective lyrics and commentaries, Sondheim observes, “The overriding problem in every version of ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ is that Frank, the central figure, is entirely unsympathetic for the first half-hour of the show. He is arrogant, an adulterer, a betrayer of his best friend and the cause of near-suicidal alcoholism in the woman who loves him unrequitedly.”

While working with director James Lapine on a later version of the show, Sondheim added the song “Growing Up” to serve as a “progress report” on Frank’s “moral state.” “We should see him torn between decisions — making, as he always does, the wrong one,” Sondheim writes.

Friedman insists that Frank is not guilty: “Nobody in my play is guilty. They’re making decisions, like we all do. They make mistakes, mistakes that we can all make.” But she recognizes the crucial role “Growing Up” plays in revealing where Frank is coming from.

“The amusement and bafflement of having a go at life and everyone wanting a piece of you — that is the place that Jonathan works from,” Friedman said. “Everyone wants a piece of Frank. That’s what happens with brilliant people. Jonathan is not just brilliant and beautiful but also one of the kindest men. And kindness is central to this production.”

Groff, who was exceptional in the short-lived HBO series “Looking” about a group of young gay men living in San Francisco, said that, from “a queer perspective,” he could identify with the way Frank represses parts of himself to please others.

“Growing up closeted, I became an expert at dodging questions and shining a light on other people,” he said. “This can create a relationship dynamic where you’re in a constant state of service to others — like the perfect son who’s hiding something. That stereotype feels connected to the way Frank supports everybody’s dreams, talents, neuroses and needs. He’s able to do it because he’s full of passion and genuine love for those people.”

So how exactly did Friedman, Groff & Co. finally solve the riddle of “Merrily”? By approaching it the way they might a play by Shakespeare or Chekhov, sifting through the lyrics as though they were lines in “Hamlet” and digging into the psychology of the characters as though mining subtext in “Uncle Vanya.”

This revival, fittingly, has been a team effort. And the ensemble’s collaborative joy only reinforces our sense that, however much Frank, Charley and Mary may bitterly disappoint one another, their bond will always be the best thing that ever happened to them.

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