Merrily We Roll Along made its Broadway debut in November 1981. Sixteen performances later, it famously closed as a flop. An adaptation of a George Kaufman and Moss Hart play of the same name that debuted in 1934, the show was created by the legendary team of Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince with George Furth writing the book. It tells the story of three plucky young friends — Frank, a composer; Charley, a playwright; and Mary, a writer — who, over time, slowly start to resent each other. Except, notably, that story is told backward: spanning about two decades, from age 40, when they’re embittered adults, back down to their 20s, when they’re aspirational artists hanging out on a roof. It immediately landed in the shadow of Sondheim and Prince’s previous work, Sweeney Todd. “Mr. Sondheim has given this evening a half-dozen songs that are crushing and beautiful — that soar and linger and hurt,” Frank Rich wrote in his review for the New York Times. “But the show that contains them is a shambles.” Its failure broke down Sondheim and Prince’s collaborative relationship and became regarded as Sondheim’s black sheep. In 2016, the documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened chronicled the lives of the original production’s young actors — a cast of 16-to-25-year-olds that included Jim Walton (Frank), Lonny Price (Charley), Ann Morrison (Mary), and a young Jason Alexander as Broadway producer Joe Josephson — while painting a picture of how the show is widely perceived. “One of the lessons of adulthood is disappointment,” one actor says in the film, both summarizing life and, ironically, Merrily.
Now, the show is back on Broadway for the first time, directed by Maria Friedman, with 42 years of changes and a cast that earned rave reviews for a production Off Broadway last winter. Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez, and Daniel Radcliffe, who play Frank, Mary, and Charley respectively, sustain deep chemistry onstage and off, roasting and complimenting each other often in the same breath — and, together, they’re helping turn the idea of “Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway” from one of the saddest stories in theater to the type of show its explosive Act Two number “It’s a Hit” could be sung about.
Did you have a relationship to Merrily prior to getting involved with the production?
Groff: The documentary was the first time I knew anything about it.
Radcliffe: I saw this production in London in 2013, and that was my only experience of the musical. I had no appreciation of the troubled history of the show until I watched the documentary.
When you saw it then, did you feel a connection to Charley?
Radcliffe: Seeing “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” my brain was like, God, I would love to do that one day, and also, I’m not sure if I can. There’s an inborn nervousness and a speed of thought evident in that song that I find exciting. I like arguments in which no one is actually wrong — people just want different things. That’s maybe a difference in how we have talked about it versus other productions. There’s this idea that Frank is a sellout and that Charley is the purist, but also I think Frank just wants to make movies. He makes questionable choices and treats some people very badly, but the actual tension is, I just want his attention in a different way than he’s willing to give it to me. That’s just life sometimes, and no one’s wrong.
Groff: Frank says in the first scene, “I made only one mistake in my life, but I made it over and over again, and that was saying ‘yes’ when I meant ‘no.’” In the early stages of the friendship, we’re all on the same page. We’re coming up together in New York, and we are inspiring each other with our common goals and shared talents, and, as years go by, people have families and people have writer’s block and shows become successful; there’s wives and children and mistakes, and needs become different. The mistake that we all make to a certain extent is we don’t allow each other to change.
Lindsay, when you started the show, when you didn’t know Merrily, what was your entry point to Mary? She’s an alcoholic trying to hold together these incredibly long relationships.
Mendez: I got really drunk. [Laughs] It was hard to look at her and think about that version of people who have a success and then can’t match it again. I’ve never floated in the wind in my life, but I definitely know people who do and are uncomfortable and lost and have that darkness. I go to that first. This defines Mary. I think about the fear and terror of that combined with sometimes feeling like she needs other people to fully get her to her peak place and hangs onto that so much that she doesn’t even know what she’s doing it for anymore. As her relationships start to fracture and fall away, she’s totally lost and needs them, or she thinks she needs them, to be able to live her life. It takes that final break for her to realize that they’re not going to save her and she has to save her, and I believe that she does.
What did you think when you were first cast together?
Mendez: Jonathan’s how I got cast. He was like, “Lindsay should be Mary.” Dan was cast before either of us, but Dan didn’t know either of us really, right?
Radcliffe: No, but obviously both by reputation. As soon as this trio was the idea and it came together, everything just worked. I flash back to what my life could have been like if it hadn’t been with them, and it’s a very different story.
Jonathan, what did you see in Lindsay that made you think she should be Mary?
Groff: I just selfishly was thinking she’d be so great for the part because she’s an animal. An amazing actor and singer. Even before meeting Dan, I had seen him in Equus and knew he was a theater animal. It’s brilliant to cast Dan in the show because we’ve all seen him grow up from being a child to a full grown man. It’s like Wow, we’ve all seen Dan for the last 20 years in front of us.
Dan, as the person who didn’t know these two before, how did you develop chemistry?
Radcliffe: It was a case of being plunged into a world of video messages at first unwillingly. [Groff and Mendez laugh.] Then being like, “Oh, fuck. I guess.”
Groff and Mendez: Dan!
Radcliffe: I was watching them like, “They’ve said so much. I need to write notes to answer all the things that they’ve said.”
Were they about the show?
Radcliffe: Yes and no.
Mendez: It was months and months before. We were trying to get to know each other so that we wouldn’t arrive on the first day like, “Nice to meet you. Let’s be old friends.”
Radcliffe: And now I send videos all the time. Now I’m like, “You can’t stop me.”
Groff: Now you initiate sometimes.
Radcliffe: You get to jobs when you know you are playing people that are intense friends hoping that the other people are coming in with the spirit of, “Let’s get involved and see how much of that we can bring out.” We did it pretty fast at New York Theatre Workshop, but this time around, having had a full year of knowing each other, it feels so different in a lovely way.
I was rewatching Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened and was struck by how young the original cast was. Given that you all worked professionally at that age, what would it have been like if you were in this show at their age?
Groff: I look back at that time of being 21, and all the dreams and expectations — if Spring Awakening had flopped in the way that their show flopped, it would’ve been a very different life. I was ugly crying through that entire documentary because it was like sliding doors. Knowing how this show brings you together and bonds you — feeling that that wouldn’t be accepted or celebrated would be even more devastating.
Mendez: I wouldn’t have been brave enough to play Mary. When we’re in the final scene, at our youngest, I’m always like, “This is the easiest for me to grab.” That part I could have done so beautifully. But I would’ve been too scared to show the ugly part of myself, to tap into how bad these people go. You have to feel confident enough to be ugly and be messy, and when I was 20, I just wanted to look perfect.
Radcliffe: We’re all in a nice range to play these parts, because at the finale, “Our Time,” the people we were then are within reach. But their story technically finishes at 40. These people’s lives are not over, which is why there is more hope in the play than it can be perceived as having.
Even having just shown the audience everything that goes wrong, it still feels hopeful?
Mendez: With the younger cast it was a cautionary tale, but with us, there could be so much more.
Radcliffe: What if Frank, after the end of that party in the first scene, calls Charley and says, “You know what? I fucking miss you,” and all of the things that have happened in the play could lead him to that choice? They could also not. Even though we know what happens, I still find “Our Time” full of genuine optimism, and find myself believing that they are going to come back and hang the plaque and be on the rooftop again. Even if Frank and Charley never talk to each other again, there is still so much value in what they have had. Yes, it’s sad that they’re not together, but only if the standard for friendship is that we are best friends until we die and it doesn’t mean anything else unless that happens. There’s not many friendships that are going to rise to that standard.
Jonathan, you haven’t mentioned Frank’s future past the show yet.
Groff: I think healing begins. The way that we’ve now staged the ending is a bookend, which is a nod to it being hopeful. Maria always says, “You can start over again. It’s never too late in your life to be a good person.” I do think that this show is an offering for the audience. We want them to follow our characters and be invested in us, but at the same time, we want them to think about their own lives. There were people Off Broadway that would say, “I called my dad. I called my friend.”
Radcliffe: We did “Old Friends” during rehearsal a couple of days ago, and I was like, “I have to call someone I haven’t spoken to in too long.”
Mendez: Friendships are relationships that are repairable, as opposed to marriage, which is a lot more complicated, but with that long history. There’s openness there.
Radcliffe: Maria has specifically asked us to make eye contact with people in the audience. So if you’re reading this and that makes you very uncomfortable, I’m sorry that it happened to you already. There are some times you would see somebody a minute and a half into the show absolutely sobbing.
What have you learned since doing it at New York Theatre Workshop?
Radcliffe: People know “Old Friends” from the concert version where everyone holds hands. But actually, it is two people with very disparate philosophies on what a friendship is having an argument and one person trying to negotiate both their sides and bring them together. The specificity of that argument has gotten even deeper. There’s a level of faith that we know the show well enough that we can now play with each other with freedom.
Mendez: I trust you both so much and you have my trust, so I can try something. There’s so much care that there’s no care needed.
Groff: It was hard at first to play the end at the beginning. And then a month into our run at New York Theater Workshop, I’m sitting with Dan in “Franklin Shepherd, Inc.,” and he’s saying, “Start with nothing but a song to sing,” and suddenly I have a flash of us on a rooftop singing “We have nothing but our song to sing.”
Mendez: When you sing, “It’s our time coming through,” it just takes me back. That’s how you fall into these moments. The way they plant this history in this play just fucking guts you when you’re living the whole play as we’ve lived it.
How do you start the show at that place without any momentum? How do you start at the end?
Mendez: I’ve gotten really good at snapping into a moment. That’s what this play has done. I leave hysterically sobbing and then have to come in and have it be five years earlier. I do it 20 times in each show.
Groff: The gift of the Off Broadway run was that getting to live it allowed us to layer it, because the more we lived it, the more it became clear how fucking brilliant the writing is.
It’s so nice that, in the experience of performing the show, you get to shed the severity scene by scene. When we would finish the show Off Broadway, I would feel like I was 18. It’s different for the audience because they’re taken on a different experience, but we’ve spent a lot of time rehearsing and in performance and now rehearsing again, reminding ourselves to start again at the beginning of every scene. Start again, start again. It’s a unique acting challenge because usually you can feel the momentum.
Mendez: And you get to take that with you, but instead, with this show, you have to leave it every time. “Leave it, leave it. I don’t know this yet. I don’t know this yet. I don’t know this yet.”
Groff: It’s a life lesson. Sometimes the things we take with us no longer exist. I find myself working this muscle when performing this show — “Now I’m going to show up in this scene releasing everything that has happened and be here right now.” And then I take that work into my life with my old friends.
With the level that you appreciate the show, is there a sense of responsibility toward it? The goal is to redefine Merrily’s place in the canon, right?
Radcliffe: There have been a lot of productions of Merrily. I definitely don’t feel like the goal is redefining, but I share the sense of responsibility. It’s so fucking good, and I want to do justice to this story every night.
Groff: Seeing the marquee go up, “Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway,” 42 years later, does feel like a big deal. But there’s a difference when we’re sitting and talking about it now. But as an actor, I’m not thinking about anything except the moment to moment of the show. There’s so much to think about when we’re performing the show that it isn’t until moments like this where it’s like, You’re right, it’s a big deal that Merrily is going to be on Broadway.
Mendez: All I hope for is that people understand it and that we break their hearts a bit and they say, “Wow, I saw a Sondheim show that I haven’t seen before and now is in my canon.”
“Years from now,
We’ll remember and we’ll come back,
Buy the rooftop and hang a plaque:
‘This is where we began,
Being what we can.’” These include, but are not limited to: a 1985 production at the La Jolla Playhouse, a 1994 Off Broadway revival, a 2000 West End production that won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical, a 2012 Encores! production, a 2012-13 London production, also directed by Friedman, and a 2019 Off Broadway production.