“Merrily We Roll Along” is a Sondheim cynical take: Hollywood moguls ditch idealism for cash

By Lucy Komisar

“How did you get to be here?” A common question often rephrased in conversation. But this Stephen Sondheim – George Furth production takes it dramatically smarter in multiple musical flashbacks, each chosen year before the previous one. And each vignette is a surprise.

In this case, the question is how Franklin Shepard (a smooth clean-cut Jonathan Groff) a successful but vacuous movie producer/ composer evolved from an idealistic youth committed to work that would change the world. Artistry vs cash. It’s a charmer with bite. The production is enhanced, of course, by Sondheim’s signature sophisticated lyrics and music that is as easy to recognize as the work of a visual artist. It is based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart which also used reverse times.

An “A” List party, photo Joan Marcus.

“How does it happen? Where is the moment?
How can you miss it? Isn’t it clear?
How can you let it slip out of gear?
How did you ever get there from here?”

The show is book-ended by pretentious parties. They all look alike.

It’s 1976 in Bel Air. A gaggle of movie folk and hangers-on (actors, lawyer, agent, etc) are quaffing champagne to toast a new movie. One returns in a bikini from the pool, steps from the terrace through the grand living room doors.

A morose, cynical guest is his old friend Mary (Lindsay Mendez), a novelist. My favorite of the cast, Mendez gives a rich performance. (The character in the Kaufman-Hart play was patterned after Dorothy Parker.) When someone says, “I read your novel over and over,“ Mary ripostes, “Didn’t you get it the first time?” When someone refers to the “A” list at Frank’s parties, she comments, “I just figured out what the ‘A’ stands for.” Director Maria Friedman, who understands and presents the play superbly, played Mary in 1992 in Leicester, England.

The parody of movie people is a great number. In fact, every song-and-dance scene is a great number. Choreography by Tim Jackson.

Katie Rose Clarke as Beth Shepard, Jonathan Groff as Franklin Shepard, Krystal Joy Brown as Gussie Carnegie, Jacob Keith Watson as Terry & Talia Robinson as Meg Kincaid, 1962 party, photo Joan Marcus.

Frank, who is 40 and twice married, dallies, whispers to a young actress coming onto him, “I have a wife. I love you too.” But that’s also a replay of what he told his second/current actress wife, who in turn is jealous of his new star.

A year before at an NBC studio (there’s that colorful peacock) Frank, interviewed with his lyricist and playwright partner Charley Kringas (appropriately grungy Daniel Radcliffe who shows some acting depth), is confronted by an interview question revealing he is betraying Charley by signing another deal. Charley wants to do “Take a Left,” a political play they’ve worked on for years.

His wife’s ex-husband Joe (the iconic Reg Rogers), is bedraggled and begs her for $100. There’s a fine satirical power number.

Back to 1968, Frank is 31 and needs money for his divorce. “Old friends… when friends break up” is a charmer. (I keep using that word, but this is Sondheim.) Frank’s new apartment in New York is quite grand. And wife Gussie (Krystal Joy Brown, with a belting show voice) says she is leaving Joe. Frank says, “He’ll be destroyed.” Beth (Katie Rose Clarke) is his distraught and wounded wife, using her fine voice in an ironic reprise of a courtship song: “Bricks can tumble from clear blue skies.”

So now you get the device. It is fascinating to reverse engineer how Frank “made good.”

Daniel Radcliffe as Charley Kringas, Jonathan Groff as Franklin Shepard and Lindsay Mendez as Mary Flynn, early days, photo Joan Marcus.

We’ll go back to a 1962 party of famous people smoking marijuana. These folks come as a set. Even the mayor is there.

Gussie sings, “Meet the blob,
The bodies you read about.
The ones who know everyone
That everyone knows.”

Frank is 25 and Gussie, on the make, eyes him. He could make her a star.
That’s a way from 1960 when Frank, Charley and Beth do a clever satirical café revue about the Kennedys.

Before that is college, when the two young men dream of the future when their artistry will change the world.

The scene is minimalist, usually a wall with two doors banking tall windows that are lit in different colors. Sometimes a piano or café tables. In ’58 they try to interest producer Joe in their work. He replies (in a clever Sondheim answer to his critics) “Give me a melody you can hum…something less avant garde,” and he hums “Some Enchanted Evening.” Could I hum any song from “Merrily”? No. Do I prefer Sondheim sophistication to cornball Big Broadway? Of course!

Merrily We Roll Along.” Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by George Furth. Based on the Original 1934 Play by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart. Choreographed by Tim Jackson. Directed by Maria Friedman. New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, NYC. Runtime 2:30. Box Office 212-460-5475 or tickets@nytw.org. It’s sold out, but there are ways to get tickets. Opened Nov 21, 202, closes Jan. 21, 2023. Moves to Broadway in fall 2023.

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