Merrily We Roll Along was and shall always remain a hot mess of a musical. Based on a longer-running if also financially unsuccessful 1934 play of the same name by Kaufman and Hart, Merrily opened (and quickly closed) on Broadway in 1981, ending the storied decade-long collaboration between Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince. Their version follows a spiritually bereft if materially successful playwright backward in time, beginning with scenes from a wealthy, empty life as a producer of junky films and ending with his idealistic youth as a promising composer and burgeoning Great Artist. Close friendships fray, marriages end badly, and a son becomes estranged in the process. Why should we care at all about a guy we're told from the outset has traded his soul for fame and fortune? The show never bothers to let us in on that secret, which is why it does not work and never will--unless, if your glass is half-full, maybe someday it might. That's the Gordion knot of Merrily in a nutshell.
It fascinates me to think about all the machinery that has chugged along behind Merrily from its premiere. The show purports to draw a line between art and commerce, and to take a stand on the side that values Great Art and that trusts money only so far as a means toward more Great Art. But, irony of ironies, it's the impossibly famous, incredibly monied, insanely connected and endlessly revered Great Men who made Merrily that has kept it from having been forgotten in the first place. There's the score, which has plenty going for it even if it, like the much weaker book, was hardly rapturously received by critics (though Frank Rich did tip his hat to it while trashing the rest of the show). Only when Columbia Records granted the company the rare opportunity to record a cast album despite the show's flop status (again, because Sondheim) did the score catch on. The many frequent attempts at reviving and attempting to "fix" Merrily followed suit: there have been countless revivals, many of which have been recorded for posterity, too, featuring new or revised or reordered or retinkered material--as if a few nips and tucks would somehow solve the problem of three not-especially-developed characters stuck in a slowly decaying friendship that never comes off as especially meaningful or interesting to begin (or, whatever, end) with.
Don't get me wrong: Maria Friedman's production--done apparently because she was good friends with Sondheim and wanted to do his poor, suffering, misunderstood show more justice than it's apparently ever been given--does help the show as much, I think, as it can possibly be helped. The superb casting goes a long way: the star-studded cast digs deep, and the performances are gorgeous as a result. Daniel Radcliffe is adorably wiry and neurotic as Charlie, and his frustrations with his friend are crystal clear--but then, so too is the fact that his life isn't so terribly miserable or bereft without Franklin in it, anyway. Jonathan Groff is always appealing and watchable, and his Franklin is framed as a sad, wistful cipher who knows he's gone about all the things the wrong way, even as he can't fix any of them. But mining the emotions of these characters is still not enough to turn the show around: self-aware or not, Shepard's an id-driven, money-hungry, womanizing dick, and we are told as much from the outset, so whatevs. To that end, while the phenomenal Lindsay Mendez finds more depth to Mary than any other actor I've ever seen in the role, the character nevertheless remains an angry, empty drunk who harbors a blinding love of an angry, empty Franklin. Her relationship with booze still makes a lot more sense than anything else about her.
In short, the NYTW production of Merrily is a wonderful thing to see if you love this show despite (or perhaps for) all its warts. If you, like me, enjoy watching Sisyphean attempts at getting this particular rock up to the very top of the hill, you'll get a kick out of this acme of a production. Otherwise? Maybe go instead to a show that's not as impossible to find a ticket for, or stay home and stream any or all of the many, many, many recordings of past attempts at pushing the rock up the hill. I'm sure this cast will add a new one to the ever-growing pile soon enough.