This is vintage Sondheim, the unimaginable flop now on Broadway again, restored to its dazzling, heart-wrenching brilliance. Merrily We Roll Along has been called his most personal, perhaps semi-autobiographical show, but for any adult in the audience, it’s everyone’s autobiography.
The whole cast sings: “Never look back…/How did we get to be here” and then answers that question by looking back, as scene by scene we watch Frank (Jonathan Groff) and Charley (Daniel Radcliffe) and Mary (Lindsay Mendez) retrace their steps, year by year, back when they were all young and becoming the best of friends. Frank writes music; Charley writes lyrics: they are a composite Sondheim who, of course, does both. The conflict between them becomes the familiar one: artistic integrity vs. commercial success. Mary writes fiction and unrequitedly loves Frank.
Directed by Maria Friedman, the transitions in time slide seamlessly by: a change of shirt, a new something hanging on the wall, and we’re back year before year before year.
Nobody does rue like Sondheim: the marriages failed, the talent wasted, the success that corrupted, the time frittered away, the money spent, and saddest of all, the friendships betrayed. “Life’s the way it is/Not the way it was.”
But, hey, come on, this isn’t Chekhov, it’s musical theater, it’s a Broadway show, so it’s also funny and thrilling. Most of that funny and thrilling is due to Daniel Radcliffe (his American accent is perfect) who is nimble and amusing and altogether endearing. His is also the best singing voice onstage. Groff’s Frank is a bit too likable—his sellout personality is revealed only by the circumstances the script provides (book by George Furth) rather than by acting.
But it seems foolish to cavil: Merrily We Roll Along is a terrific show—clever and melodic and exciting— and you feel all the truth of it as you inevitably look back, humming those great tunes, on your way home.
[Hudson Theater, 141 W 44th St, New York, NY] Previews began September 19, 2023; opened October 10, 2023; scheduled through March 24, 2024; thehudsonbroadway.com