'Merrily We Roll Along' review — first Broadway revival has a good thing going

Read our four-star review of Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

“That’s just something I do when I want to hold onto a moment,” composer Franklin Shepard shares in Merrily We Roll Along. “I close my eyes tight and I swallow. Like I take a picture that I can treasure.”

Be prepared to do the same during the bracing revival of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, back on Broadway for the first time. You’re going to want to preserve the riches flowing throughout this hurts-so-good musical about growing up and growing apart.

The show's 1981 premiere was short-lived thanks to various staging issues. But George Furth's heart-stirring, if cliched, story about the delicate nature of friendship and Sondheim’s enduring hits – “Not a Day Goes By,” “Good Thing Going,” and “Old Friends” among them – earned the show a robust afterlife.

Based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the musical unfolds in reverse chronological order. Soutra Gilmour’s spare and handsome set shapeshifts effectively as scenes move back in time and across cities.

The plot follows the fates of three close pals – Frank (Jonathan Groff), dramatist Charley Kringas (Daniel Radcliffe), and writer Mary Flynn (Lindsay Mendez) – whose tight-knit bond erodes as the days go by. It’s 1976 when we first lay eyes on Frank. He's a hotshot movie producer with a fancy home in Bel Air and a life he hates.

“How did you get to be here?” sycophants and wannabes want to know. Director Maria Friedman’s staging emphasizes that Frank is reflecting on how he got to where he is, which calls up the rest of the show's worth of memories. In a way, the concept turns an opening lyric from the title song — “Yesterday is done” — on its head. The past is always present.

As he holds a script of an unproduced stage show he abandoned for Hollywood, Frank fades in on how his betrayals, cheating, and greed conspired to ruin relationships with Mary, now a self-loathing drunk, and Charley, who’s been excised from his life. Frank’s wives, first Beth (Katie Rose Clarke), and then Gussie (Krystal Joy Brown), a calculating actress, are other casualties.

The plot finally rolls back to 1957 in New York, where the wide-eyed trio becomes fast friends as Sputnik orbits and signals that anything’s possible – especially when your besties have your back. The big-hearted “Our Time” spills over with emotion.

Friedman’s production premiered in London in 2012 and wrapped a New York Theatre Workshop run in January with the Broadway cast. Her vision is clear, accessible, and very fine. It’s nitpicking to note that the first act pacing is snail-mail slow, but it is.

Since the downtown run, though, the three leads are even better. Cast against the nice-guy type, Groff steps up with a dark streak as Frank, a wolf in Shepard’s clothing. Mendez makes Mary’s quips drip acid and the reality-check number, “Like It Was,” a musical highlight.

Radcliffe really pops now, and Charley’s comedic cri de coeur “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” is a showstopper. Actually, it’s a moment to close your eyes tight and swallow.

Merrily We Roll Along is at the Hudson Theatre through March 24. Get Merrily We Roll Along tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez in Merrily We Roll Along. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

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