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New York Times

3 Actors, 1 Unshakable Bond

September 12, 2023   |   Written by Ben Brantley

What promises to be the most passionate love story of the new Broadway season is a tale of three people. Like many triangles, this one involves jealousy, guilt, misunderstanding, recrimination and betrayal.

As is usually the case with such affairs, it begins in ecstasy and ends in tragedy. (You could also say it begins in tragedy and ends in ecstasy, but more on that later.) One big difference, though, between this triangle and the more classic variety: Sex is not part of the equation for its leading lovers.

What propels the highs and lows of “Merrily We Roll Along,” the 1981 Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical that begins performances this month at the Hudson Theater, is friendship. But for the stars of this first Broadway revival — Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez and Daniel Radcliffe — embodying the implosion of that friendship may well be more emotionally charged, rewarding and wrenching than anything they’ve done before.

As often happens with actors portraying intimacy, the sentiments they evoke in performance have bled into real life — or the good feelings anyway, when their characters are still fresh, hopeful and unconditionally smitten with one another. These well-seasoned pros may be in their 30s or early 40s, but when they describe their relationship — offstage, I mean, although the line becomes blurry — they’re as effusive and dewy as Romeo and Juliet before the going got tough.

“It’s such a special show in that way,” said Groff, 38, who received his first Tony nomination at 22 for playing a sexually addled adolescent in the musical “Spring Awakening.” “Often I feel you get that with the people you play romantic interests with. But the love story in this show is the friends. So there’s this intensity in a friendship that I’ve never experienced with a play before.”

Groff made those observations last fall when “Merrily,” the American directorial debut of the British actress (and frequent Sondheim interpreter) Maria Friedman, had just started previews in its Off Broadway incarnation at New York Theater Workshop. That its transfer to Broadway seemed guaranteed once it opened had much to do with the aching, loving sincerity with which its cast suffused it.

It’s important to note that “loving sincerity” is hardly a description that would have been applied to “Merrily” before Friedman — who had staged two earlier versions in London and Boston — got her hands on it. When it first opened on Broadway 42 years ago, “Merrily” was a heartbreaker for all the wrong reasons.

Based on the 1934 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play of the same title, “Merrily” follows, in reverse chronology, the deleterious effect of success on its charismatic protagonist, a Broadway composer-turned-Hollywood producer named Franklin Shepard, and his longtime chums: Mary Flynn, the acerbic alcoholic novelist (and drama critic), and Charley Kringas, a witty, left-leaning lyricist. (Those roles are played in the revival by Groff, Mendez and Radcliffe.) Unwisely stunt-cast with actors in their teens and early 20s, “Merrily” was damned by critics for being cynical, facile and, to quote the New York Times reviewer Frank Rich, “a shambles.”

The show ran for 16 post-preview performances, and the long, fruitful collaboration between Sondheim and the director, Harold Prince (which had included the revolutionary “Company” and “Sweeney Todd”), ended in a rift that lasted for two decades. (The project’s devastating impact on its young cast is chronicled in the 2016 documentary “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.”)

Yet in a period abundant with all things Sondheim, including the current Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd” and the forthcoming Off Broadway show “Here We Are” (which Sondheim was working on when he died in 2021), “Merrily” has emerged as anything but a lame duck. More perhaps than any of the recent Sondheim productions, this tear-streaked “Merrily” pronounces a definitive finis to the perception of the composer as an overly cerebral artist of chilly, distancing cleverness.

Friedman’s approach, of locating and clinging to the show’s wrenching emotional center, clearly affected its 20-some member ensemble, which has been increased by two for Broadway. When the Workshop production ended its limited, sold-out run in January, Groff said he and his co-stars were “a wreck, even knowing we were going to Broadway, to say goodbye to an experience that meant so much.”

Nonetheless, Groff, Mendez and Radcliffe agreed to think as little as possible about “Merrily” for the next seven months. And while they continued to keep in close touch (they all attended “Sweeney Todd” together), they avoided discussing it.

And so the shadows of Frank, Mary and Charlie were banished, and life, being life, continued — in some cases, momentously. Mendez and Groff both worked on television projects (which they could not discuss because of the actors’ strike). Mendez moved back to Manhattan from California with her 2-year-old daughter.

Groff saw Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour four times, officiated at a friend’s wedding in Portugal and attended a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Utah. (Two of his last calls, before he surrendered his phone, were to Mendez and Radcliffe, to let them know where he’d be.) And, yes, he and Mendez both saw “Barbie.”

Radcliffe did not, for a good reason. In April, he and his longtime partner, Erin Darke, had their first child. “That has been basically the entire break,” he said. “He’s divine,” Radcliffe said simply, restoring luster to a weary adjective. “And he’s just started singing and laughing.”

While this addition to his life kept “Merrily” thoughts mostly at bay, Radcliffe — who registers as the most obsessive of the three — admitted that he continued to practice his solo “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” a rapid-fire tongue twister. He would even sing it while holding his son. “He seems to respond to really fast music,” Radcliffe said.

When I met with Radcliffe and his co-stars in a rehearsal room on West 42nd Street, they were radiant with a back-to-school energy that felt appropriate to the end of August. The cast and crew of “Merrily” — which also features Reg Rogers, Krystal Joy Brown and Katie Rose Clarke — had reunited only three days earlier. Later, for Clarke’s birthday, they serenaded her over a pizza slice with a candle. During rehearsals, between scenes of conflict and recrimination, they tended to fall into reassuring hugs.

The bond among the stars felt, if anything, tighter than when I spoke to them last December. They were aware of it from the moment they met. “When the three of us first walked into the room,” Groff said, “there was a natural — —”

“It was a heart connection,” Mendez said.

Groff continued: “It’s a vibe. It’s chemistry. You have it on dates sometimes. And then going night after night after night and digging into the energy that was between us and the show deepening it. The three of us have — it’s such a gift — a meant-to-be alignment of personality and energy.”

What they share, among other things, is a bone-deep love of that currently beleaguered art form, the theater. Groff and Mendez, who turned 40 this year, arrived in Manhattan in their late teens from Pennsylvania and California to “pound the pavements,” as they said, sounding like the hoofers in a Busby Berkeley musical.

By that time, the London-born Radcliffe, 34, was already world-famous as the title character of the Harry Potter film franchise, in which he starred for a decade. His parents had been stage actors before he was born, and Radcliffe said that, growing up, he spent as much time going to theater as to the movies.

At 17, he made his West End and Broadway stage debuts playing the psychotic stable boy in Peter Shaffer’s “Equus,” with Richard Griffiths as his psychiatrist. (“That’s so Dan, that his first role would be ‘Equus,’” Groff said.)

“I think I love the element of risk,” Radcliffe said of working in theater.

Almost as daringly, he took on the lead in the 2011 Broadway revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Like his co-stars, he is lyrical on the singular emotional impact that is possible with musicals. “Two notes of a violin, or a certain moment of singing, can push your heart over the edge of where it was,” he said.

So would he describe himself as a member of that New York-centric cult that makes a religion of the Broadway musical? “They’re the high priests,” he said, pointing to the others. “I’m like an altar boy.” He said that hearing a perfectly normal phrase “like ‘How do you do?’” will trigger his co-stars to start performing a lyric with just that phrase.

Sure enough, when a few moments later I mentioned that I grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., Groff and Mendez responded immediately and simultaneously in swooping falsetto and soprano. “Winstooon-Saaalemm,” they sang, quoting a number I had almost forgotten from the musical “The Light in the Piazza.”

When they discussed their lyrics and dialogue from “Merrily,” they often seemed tremulous with the excitement of discovery. With an exactitude and passion that was unexpected at the end of a long rehearsal day, they parsed several scenes and musical numbers for me, especially moments when their characters just miss the chance to repair what’s gone wrong in their relationship.

Groff and Mendez started crying during several such descriptions, as if they had only just fully realized the extent of the destruction being done.

Mendez said those moments resonate even more fully now than they did seven months ago. “When we rehearsed this downtown, and had started being friendly, the thing that would hit me in my heart, was the idea of the friendship. But now it’s the actual friendship; we feel the way we feel they feel in ‘Opening Doors,’” she said, referring to an ebullient, optimistic trio performed when their characters are just starting out in New York. “So to think about that deteriorating is pretty gutting.”

All three speak of “Merrily” as something that their lives had been inevitably leading to. So it felt fair to pose the question that recurs throughout the songs in the show: “How did you get to be here?”

Radcliffe was the most succinct. “My life’s an absolute mystery to me in terms of how anything happens,” he said. “I won the lottery when I was 11 and have been trying to capitalize on it ever since in terms of being allowed to keep doing this. If you’d told me when I was finishing ‘Potter’ that I’d be doing things like this, I would absolutely not have believed you.”

Groff, who grew up in Lancaster, Pa., said, “I know when I was a kid, theater was like an escape for me, as a closeted teenager. And I think I really relate to when Frank says, ‘Music is my life, without music, I would die.’ Musical theater at that age was, like, lifesaving. And so to be now, at 38, doing a musical as a more fully realized version of who I am … I always went to theater to escape and to express and get out of my life completely. And it’s like this show — and maybe this is what makes it so unique and what brought me to this experience — this show is both the escape and bringing me into my own life at the same time.”

Mendez, who described growing up in California as a “Mexican Jew,” attended a largely white school in Orange County “where no one thought I belonged” and where she was told that as an actor, she would have a limited future, if any. When she arrived in New York at 18, she discovered, like Groff, “that New York and theater was where I was accepted, when I felt like I wasn’t accepted anywhere else.”

By 2018, she had racked up a substantial list of stage credits and won a Tony for her performance that year in “Carousel.” But when she moved back to Los Angeles to do a television series, her life began to feel unsettled.

When Groff, whom she knew casually, called her to say that a casting agent had said she would be perfect for the part of Mary, she had become a mother and was newly divorced. “I was like, I don’t live in New York anymore, and I don’t know who I really am right now. I feel really lost. How am I going to do this?” Mendez said.

“But somehow, magically, it all just worked. And when I got back here, the first day I walked in with them, it was just like, Oh my God, I’m home. And I know who I am and what I’m made to do. Of course I ended up here. There was no other place to end up.”

She has been bringing her daughter to rehearsals. “Seeing her sitting and watching us, enraptured by it,” she said, “I know she’s never going to think there’s not a place there for her.”

Mendez, who can switch quickly between sunniness and tears, became exultant. “And I get to build these memories for her. And build a theater lover. And build these new kids who are going to love it the way I did and know ‘Merrily We Roll Along.’”

She paused before adding gleefully, “That’s how we infect them.”

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