Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Steve: Merrily We Roll Along and Here We Are

Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez in Merrily We Roll Along. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Every time there’s a new edition of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical Merrily We Roll Along critics proclaim that this notorious 1981 failure has finally been fixed or that it was misunderstood in its time but now we can see clearly the gem that was always hiding under the unjust hype. I didn’t like the show from the first and none of the productions I’ve seen has changed my mind. But since I’ve written about two of them on Critics At Large, I’ll be brief here about my objections. I think that, like its source material, a 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it’s disastrously misconceived: a play about a messed-up three-way friendship that begins when the three main characters – a composer and playwright-lyricist who were once collaborators and a novelist-turned-drama critic – are already middle-aged and moves backwards to their hopeful youth, by which time we dislike them so much that we have no sympathy left for the people they used to be. Furth’s book is as thin as rice paper and as phony as plastic, and only a few of the songs are worth much (mainly the two ballads, “Not a Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going”). Ironically, the 2016 documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, directed by the original Charlie, Lonny Price, in which (among other things) he listens to the resurfaced interview tape Harold Prince had him make when he auditioned for the part, works in precisely the way the musical doesn’t: it truly is about a man in middle age looking back on the naïve, hopeful kid he once was. It made me cry as Merrily We Roll Along had never come close to doing.

But who could resist a revival of the show with Jonathan Groff as Frank Shepard, who trades his musical gifts for money and celebrity; Daniel Radcliffe as Charlie Kringas, who gets so exasperated with his friend’s screwed-up priorities that he excoriates him on a live TV interview; and Lindsay Mendez as Mary Flynn, the alcoholic has-been who has been longing for oblivious Frank since the night she met him? News from the front: the three leads are superb, and though they can’t turn Merrily We Roll Along into a good musical, they provide more than enough reasons for even those of us to see it who aren’t convinced that it’s the great lost American musical. Mendez sharpens Mary’s bitter putdowns until they gleam; the dialogue is dross but she makes the character sound like some inspired middle ground between Dorothy Parker and Carol Burnett. Radcliffe gives Charlie the loopy comic energy of a befuddled werewolf under a full moon. And Groff, with the toughest part, finds an emotional authenticity that – at least, after the first couple of scenes – make us reluctant to give up on him even when we know the game is long over.

These three are so playful on stage together that we can see how much they love each other and how much they love working together – and we extrapolate from their closeness and appreciation for each other the bond that the three friends in the musical share. Colin Donnell, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Celia Keenan-Bolger were terrific in these roles in the 2012 Encores! production but they didn’t get at anything like the Groff-Mendez-Radcliffe synergy. I expected that Radcliffe, such a musical-theatre boomerang in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, would knock the “Franklin Shepard Inc.” number out of the park, and God knows he does. But I didn’t anticipate how much bounce and humor and pathos they would wring out of second-rate Sondheim tunes like “Old Friends,” “Opening Doors” and “Our Time,” or that, with that underrated spark plug Reg Rogers as Charlie and Frank’s producer Joe Josephson and Katie Rose Clarke as Frank’s first wife, Beth, they would turn a dud like “It’s a Hit!” or a bland novelty number like “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” into gleeful entertainment.

Director Maria Friedman has been retooling this production since she opened it in London a decade ago. It’s not a handsome one: Soutra Gilmour’s set is airless and bland and her costumes aren’t especially appealing. This version makes the play about Frank, who is confronting his unhappy (though highly successful) life and reviewing the choices he made along the way, which lends the ending some emotional grounding – though I’m not sure anyone but Groff, with his mixture of boyish tentativeness and unabashed feeling, could carry it off. The only member of the cast I didn’t like at all was Krystal Joy Brown, who was such a lightning bolt in the short-lived 2012 musical Leap of Faith, as Joe’s wife, the Broadway musical star Gussie Carnegie, who steals him away from Beth. It’s a stinker of a role – you can’t figure out why Frank would prefer Gussie to Beth, whose sweetness and sincerity would wrap any straight man up like a down comforter – but it can be played. (Elizabeth Stanley was very fine in it when Encores! produced it.)

The night I saw the show, the three stars stayed on stage after the curtain call to auction off a minor prop to raise money for Broadway Cares. They were hilarious, like vaudevillians who are having such a grand time working together they just can’t get themselves to leave the stage. But their camaraderie was also very touching. It seemed to link up with their performance of “Our Time,” the last song in the musical. I drove away afterwards with their faces and their reading of the song in my head. My view of Merrily We Roll Along aside, I wouldn’t have missed the experience of seeing Radcliffe and Groff and Mendez in these roles for anything.  

David Hyde Pierce with Jeremy Shamos, Amber Gray, Bobby Cannavale and Steven Pasquale in Here We Are. (Photo: Emilio Madrid)

Stephen Sondheim struggled for years to turn out a musical based on two of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist movies, The Exterminating Angel, which he put out in 1962, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which arrived a decade later. The result, Here We Are, is his final show. Since the later film is about a group of chic, self-involved nouveaux riches who wander from restaurant to restaurant but aren’t able to get a meal and the earlier picture focuses on a similar crew who attend a dinner party and find they are unable to leave, it’s easy to imagine how the narratives could be stitched together, as the book writer, David Ives, does in Here We Are; though even given Sondheim’s predilection for unusual projects, it’s puzzling that he and Ives would have thought this one was worthwhile. The Exterminating Angel is one of those pretentious art-house classics of the late fifties and sixties (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Red Desert and Blow-Up are others) that never deserved their reputation. The Discreet Charm is witty and ingenious, even charming. But neither of them, shall we say, sings.

The musical has been given a deluxe treatment by the director, Joe Mantello, and the scenic and costume designer, David Zinn. The cast includes a number of talented, experienced performers including Bobby Cannavale, Micaela Diamond, Rachel Bay Jones, Denis O’Hare, Steven Pasquale, Tracie Bennett, Jeremy Shamos and David Hyde Pierce. They’re all in there pitching, and except for Cannavale, badly miscast as a businessman-monster whose only virtue is his love for his wife (Jones), they’re all highly proficient. But the material they’re all serving is hopelessly heavy-handed. When Hyde Pierce arrives toward the end of act one as a priest, he’s so graceful and light-fingered that you feel grateful, but he has nothing to do in the second act. Act one is depressingly hip-ironic; when the lights came up for intermission I asked my theatergoing companion if he thought the show was going to run out of quotation marks. In fact, it does: act two is deadly serious, and at the end these characters who seemed carefully crafted not to mean anything all learn lessons. I’m not sure which tone is worse. The numbers sound like a patchwork of other Sondheim songs, but only of the bits that replicate recitative. It’s as though he were paying back those detractors who complained that he couldn’t write a melody by putting together a score without a single one. Here We Are is a dispiriting experience. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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