Metro Weekly

‘Merrily We Roll Along’ Broadway Review: Reversal of Fortune

A much beloved Sondheim classic, "Merrily We Roll Along," returns to the New York stage with a brilliant new production.

Merrily We Roll Along -- Photo: Matthew Murphy
Merrily We Roll Along – Photo: Matthew Murphy

The theatrical garden has finally yielded a rich harvest for Stephen Sondheim’s historically troubled musical Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim acolytes are well versed in the show’s difficult past that dates back to the original 1981 Broadway production.

Hal Prince, a longtime collaborator with Sondheim, mounted the show with a teenage cast who played the characters as both their younger and adult selves. It didn’t work. Critics killed it. Audiences avoid it. It shuttered after only 16 previews and 44 performances.

The experience was so legendary that it spawned a 2016 documentary called The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, directed by original cast member, Lonny Price. In an ironic twist, life reflected art. The experience was so harrowing that it fractured the relationship between Prince and Sondheim. (The two rekindled and collaborated on Bounce in 2003.)

So, what’s changed? For starters, the tuner was reworked, rewritten, and reimagined after its ill-fated debut. Although it never appeared back on Broadway until now, several regional and off-Broadway companies produced it.

Perhaps it took a British touch to infuse and ground it with intellect and clarity, all while maintaining the heart and sincerity. In 2012, Maria Friedman directed a London production. It worked. Critics praised it. Audiences embraced it.

Ten years later, that version transferred across the pond, played a limited run at the New York Theatre Workshop last year, then moved uptown where it is now on display in the finest form.

Some shows are earnest attempts better put to rest after they commercially crash and burn. Others, like Merrily, are worth protecting and revisiting. Fortunately, Friedman knew what a precious gem she had in this rare and special Sondheim score — and in George Furth’s stellar book.

For the New York production, casting directors Jim Carnahan and Jason Thinger, along with Friedman, decided to add celebrity power: Broadway veteran Jonathan Groff, Tony Award winner Lindsey Mendez, and former child actor turned seasoned stage star Daniel Radcliffe.

For the most part, it’s a stellar cast, although one is constantly aware that Mendez is acting, rather than embodying her role as Mary, a one-time bestselling author turned bitter alcoholic.

Groff is a suave and debonair Franklin Shephard, a musical composer who has climbed and clawed his way to the top as a successful Hollywood producer. Radcliffe rounds out this trio as Charley Kringas, a long-time collaborator and lyricist with Shepard.

The story, based on a 1934 Broadway play of the same name (which was also a Broadway flop), charts the trajectory of friendship between Frankin, Mary, and Charley.

It’s presented in reverse chronology so that the dissolution of their camaraderie opens the show and works backward to the point where they all meet each other in college, swearing allegiance and big dreams for their futures.

Merrily We Roll Along -- Photo: Matthew Murphy
Merrily We Roll Along — Photo: Matthew Murphy

Sondheim’s ingenious insight into human behavior cannot be understated. Notoriously reclusive, he did not fall into the trappings of success with all of its pomp and circumstance. Instead, he was a devoted artist who did art for art’s sake — a crucial point that, until it is too late, is lost on Shepherd.

With all of the success, his personal and familial relationships are in shambles. Yet his philandering, partying, and thirst for money thrive. Meanwhile, Mary, who has long held an unrequited flame for him — and Charley — are left behind.

“Friendship is like a garden,” Kringus says on live television while he and Shepherd are being interviewed for their new musical. “You have to water it and tend it and care about it. And you know what? I miss it and I want it back.” It’s the final blow for Shepherd and the two split ways.

Sondheim’s stellar show — now so carefully reconstructed — serves as a cautionary tale for us to value friendships over material reward. Still, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t raise our arms in exultation and celebration over this exceptional musical.

Musically, it is perhaps Sondheim’s best score and includes hits — “Good Thing Going,” “Old Friend”, “Not A Day Goes By,” “Our Time” — that have been recorded by numerous artists. Although a release date for this production’s cast album has not yet been announced, one can only hope that it will arrive sooner than later.

Merrily We Roll Along is the type of show that Broadway audiences want: one that is full of wisdom, depth, intellect, and good old-fashioned razzle-dazzle.

Merrily We Roll Along (★★★★☆) is playing through March 24, 2024 at the Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th St. in New York City. Tickets are $77 to $599. Visit

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