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 na├»ve, hopeful kid he once was. It made me cry as Merrily We Roll Along had never come close to doing.