Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Jonathan Groff Rolls Merrily Back

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For more than forty years, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical “Merrily We Roll Along” was a problem in search of a solution. Loosely based on a Kaufman and Hart play of the same name, it opened on Broadway in 1981, in a production that Frank Rich, in the Times, declared “a shambles.” It closed after sixteen performances, but amassed a devoted following (count me among it) as it was continually rewritten and restaged. The show tells the story of three show-biz friends who unite as hopeful youngsters and blast apart in disillusioned middle age: the dashing, talented composer Frank; the neurotic lyricist Charley; and the spunky, lovelorn writer Mary. But the story is told in reverse, starting with the trio’s estrangement and ending with their origin as wide-eyed college kids on a rooftop in 1957, watching Sputnik overhead as they sing about changing the world together.

One of the problems with “Merrily” is its protagonist, Franklin Shepard, whom we first meet as a slick, philandering forty-year-old Hollywood producer. It takes two acts to arrive at the charismatic musician he once was, with a lot of mistakes in between. Putting effect before cause gives each scene a painful irony—but how do you get an audience to care about a guy who’s off-putting for so long? “Merrily” is back on Broadway, in a production directed by Maria Friedman, and it’s finally a hit. One big reason is its Frank, played by Jonathan Groff, whose natural warmth shines through even in the character’s older, sleazier incarnation. When this revival opened Off Broadway, in 2022, The New Yorker’s Helen Shaw wrote, “Groff’s silky tenor and angelic face elevate a part that can sometimes be contemptible—for the first time, I could see Frank as both the dreamer who believes in greatness and the glib charmer who believes every lie he tells.”

Groff, thirty-nine, is now nominated for a Tony Award, alongside Friedman and his co-stars Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez. He was previously nominated in 2016, for “Hamilton,” in the scene-stealing part of King George III, and in 2007, for the indie-rock musical “Spring Awakening,” as the rebellious schoolboy Melchior Gabor—his breakout role, opposite Lea Michele. Groff had come to New York three years earlier, as a stagestruck, closeted nineteen-year-old from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he grew up among Mennonites and was obsessed with the original cast recording of “Annie Get Your Gun.” “Merrily,” with its themes of aging, idealism, and the vicissitudes of show business, has had Groff thinking about his own path toward stardom. “Doing this show on Broadway at this time, moving to New York twenty years ago, I’ve now lived the time frame of the show,” he told me recently.

We were talking at a bakery north of Washington Square Park. Groff had glided in on a bicycle. As we spoke, he frequently welled up with tears—he’s a crier—but regained his composure by focussing on a pair of googly eyes affixed to the wall behind me. For our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, I had an experiment in mind.

I want to talk through the past twenty years of your life, but, in the spirit of “Merrily We Roll Along,” do it in reverse chronological order, starting in the present and arriving at the moment when you came to New York.

Sure! I love this.

Let’s start with the extremely recent past. Three days ago, you went to the Met Gala. How was your night?

The big headline for me was Lea Michele was pregnant, and I sat next to her at the table, holding her giant train thing while she peed. She took it off, and I was holding that and her purse. I saw Zac Posen, who was at our table, help Kim Kardashian up the little tiny stairs, and I said to him, “Wow, that was such a sweet moment of the gay helping the diva.” I was relating to him, like with me and Lea. It’s a zoo of famous people. I was going to go to the after-parties, but my body was just, like, “No.” I hit a wall from the shows and the epicness of the week, with the Tony nominations. So I was home by eleven-forty-five, and in bed by midnight.

The Broadway production of “Merrily” opened last fall. You told Jimmy Fallon that Meryl Streep came to your dressing room, where you have a bar named BARbra, and she took a video of you and sent it to Barbra Streisand. Who else has been there?

The first thing that comes to me is sitting in BARbra in October or November, drinking whiskey with Sutton Foster. I came to New York as a teen-ager and saw her six times in “Thoroughly Modern Millie”—now she’s in BARbra, dropping in for, like, an hour and a half after the show, and it’s so full circle. Who else? Patti LuPone was there—another big one for me. Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Martin McDonagh. Glenn Close sent back a bottle of champagne to be chilled in BARbra, which we drank together.

This show, like every Sondheim show, is very dense. Over the course of three hundred-plus performances, are there certain moments that have suddenly hit you a different way, or that you realize have a double meaning?

Double, triple, quadruple, infinity. I’m still having revelations, which really makes me believe that it’s a true work of art. Maria [Friedman] talks about how, with Sondheim’s writing, he “leaves space,” which is why it’s always new. He always needed to work with a collaborator, and she talked about the actor being an essential collaborator. She said the lyric he wrote in “Sunday in the Park with George”—“Anything you do, / let it come from you, / then it will be new”—is Sondheim’s directive to the actor.

The Tuesday after the Tony nominations, I got to the theatre, screamed with Lindsay [Mendez], screamed with Dan [Radcliffe]. [He chokes up.] Then I was singing “Growing Up”—“So old friends, don’t you see we can have it all?”—which has meant so many different things to me in the run of the show. At yesterday’s matinée, Dan and I were sitting on the roof singing “Our Time”: “Up to us, pal, to show ’em.” We’ve done it a million times. We look at each other, and Dan just fucking loses it crying. He had to look away from me. We talked about it afterward, like, “What the fuck was that?” I don’t know. Something just happened.

When you started the show, in 2022, at New York Theatre Workshop, were there kinks in your performance that you’ve since figured out?

I remember feeling shocked at being disliked for so long in the first half of the first act. It was very clear from the energy of the audience that they loved Mary in the opening scene—immediately, they’re on her side. I’m out here as a gay guy, playing this straight, two-timing Hollywood producer who’s cheating on his wife. I’m already having to feel confident in a way that I don’t in my everyday life, this sort of swagger. And the audience hates me. I remember feeling scared and self-conscious. Maria, in that preview process, really helped with that, because she talked about the value of when it’s real, and you’re not playing ugly just to be ugly. The one line that I really struggled with was “I’m just acting like it all matters so people can’t see how much I hate my life and how much I wish the whole goddam thing was over.” That is a really confronting thing to say.

People might say that this is one of the fundamental flaws of “Merrily We Roll Along”—that you’re confronted with this cynical, smarmy Frank in the first act, and you don’t really understand him until the show’s over. I can imagine going into this not knowing if that’s a solvable problem, because it hadn’t been for decades.

Well, Maria wanted us to find the truth. She really believed that these characters weren’t archetypes, that there’s humanity in the writing from beginning to end. I found it after that first week or two of previews, not being so afraid. The line that made me want to do the show was “I’ve made only one mistake in my life, but I’ve made it over and over and over. That was saying yes when I meant no.” I’ve done that a lot in my life, and there was something that felt like the closeted version of myself. George Furth and Stephen Sondheim—I can only imagine being gay at the time that they were gay. Even though Frank is straight, there’s so much repression that feels very familiar to me.



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