Broadway loves a comeback story, and the saga of Merrily We Roll Along is one for the ages. Dismissed after its 16-performance premiere in 1981, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical about the friendship of three creative people — told in reverse, from melancholy middle age to starry-eyed youth — has been endlessly analyzed. The creators tinkered with it for years, but it took British actress–turned-director Maria Friedman, who headlined a production in 1992 before directing an acclaimed London staging in 2013, to reveal its beating heart. Her sold-out 2022 Off-Broadway revival brought together the incomparable combo of Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez as, respectively, “old friends” Franklin (a composer-turned–film producer), Charley (a lyricist-turned-playwright), and Mary (a novelist-turned-critic). The trio quickly signed on to reprise their star turns in a limited Broadway engagement now playing at the Hudson Theatre. The warm and effusive Friedman shared her excitement about bringing this “brilliant, beautiful” Sondheim gem back to the Great White Way.
You have a deep understanding of Merrily We Roll Along, both as an actress and as a director. What makes the show special?
So many things: its humanity, its brilliant score, its amazing wit, and the genius of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth. The show is more than the sum of its parts: It allows an audience both to watch incredible actors delivering amazing material and to see themselves in the characters. Because the show goes backwards, we start off seeing the pain and the human mess, and then we leave these people at their most pure and beautiful and full of hope. We grow to love them, and we want to protect them and ourselves at the same time.
Franklin, Charley, and Mary have been considered unsympathetic characters, but your production flips the script on that.
They’re like all of us — they’re decent, gorgeous people who are having a go at life. Frank is an innocent who never says he’s going to do anything he doesn’t do. He’s a brilliantly talented optimist who wants to experience the world and its wonders, and little Mary and little Charley, who are both more timid, go along for the journey. But as they find their feet, they start demanding things from Frank that he never said he would do. These are complex, complicated people, and when the show is cast as beautifully as with these actors, I can guarantee you are in for a treat.
Your casting is perfect in every way. What do Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez bring to these roles?
First of all, they’re brilliant brains, all three of them, along with the entire cast, and they all possess huge hearts. They have a deep understanding of humanity, and they are all seriously kind people. The heart that Stephen and George wrote is often missing [in how the characters are portrayed]. Nobody can be smarter than Steve, so you don’t play the smart; you play the heart. That’s why this production works: It’s compassionate, it has empathy, and everyone on the stage is a full, three-dimensional person.
One of your insights is to suggest from the start that the show is being told from the point of view of Franklin, beautifully played by Jonathan Groff.
I thought it was all about Mary when I was playing it. [Laughs.] But I read the script again and recognized, of course, that it’s about Frank; it’s a memory play. Jonathan has the ability to make everyone he meets feel special. On the stage, he makes everything look easy, but what he is doing is breathtaking. And wait until you see Daniel! We had to put [the Off-Broadway production] together in about four weeks, and he was wonderful, but what he is doing now as Charley is on another level.
And Lindsay Mendez is so grounded as Mary, which seems to me the most challenging role.
What you’ve just said makes me beam, because you’ve identified with the show in a specific way. Everyone seeing Merrily We Roll Along will have a different experience because you go on that journey with these people and live alongside them as if you’re in the play. I don’t know of any other musical like that.
Let’s talk about Sondheim, who was godfather to one of your sons and whose shows have been an important part of your career.
I’ve done all of his musicals but two, either on stage, in concert versions, or recordings. We were working on this production together, and he announced it to TheNew York Times 10 days before he died [in November 2021]. He was thrilled we had cast Daniel and that Jonathan was being talked about. Given the amount of difficulty he and George and the creative team went through initially, he so wanted to be there when it re-emerged here. I miss him, and I feel him in rehearsal. My sister [lead producer Sonia Friedman] and I were watching “Opening Doors” today, and I turned to her and said, “Just know that you are watching the greatest musical-theater song ever written.”
Wow! Why do you say that?
I think it’s perfection. It covers two years of halcyon days — it’s Steve before he was famous, when he sat up eating and drinking and planning and writing and sharing ideas, just trying to open doors that were shut. Once you become famous, it’s different, of course. But the first door you open and walk through … It’s just a genius piece of autobiographical writing.
I get the feeling that Sondheim was a warmer person than people might think.
Oh, I loved him! He was one of the most loyal, beautiful people I have ever known. He loved humor; he liked fighters; he liked spirit. He had such a love for his collaborators and for actors, and a deep, deep love for theater. Where else can you work with so many extraordinary people all pushing up the same hill together?
What excites you most about bringing your production of Merrily We Roll Along to Broadway?
When I set out to do something, I put the writers and the audience first in my mind. I want the writers’ work to have the most pure and direct channel to what I believe will be an ecstatic audience. I am really, really excited to hear that overture begin, and to hear the crowd go crazy. If you loved the show before, you are going to lose your mind this time. It’s going to be amazing, and I’m not just saying that in a theatrical way. It really is going to be amazing!
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