Jonathan Groff Rolls Merrily Again

For greater than forty years, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical “Merrily We Roll Alongside” was an issue seeking an answer. Loosely primarily based on a Kaufman and Hart play of the identical title, it opened on Broadway in 1981, in a manufacturing that Frank Wealthy, within the Occasions, declared “a shambles.” It closed after sixteen performances, however amassed a loyal following (depend me amongst it) because it was frequently rewritten and restaged. The present tells the story of three show-biz mates who unite as hopeful kids and blast aside in disillusioned center age: the dashing, gifted composer Frank; the neurotic lyricist Charley; and the spunky, lovelorn author Mary. However the story is advised in reverse, beginning with the trio’s estrangement and ending with their origin as wide-eyed faculty children on a rooftop in 1957, watching Sputnik overhead as they sing about altering the world collectively.

One of many issues 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 reach on the charismatic musician he as soon as was, with a whole lot of errors in between. Placing impact earlier than trigger offers every scene a painful irony—however how do you get an viewers to care a few man who’s off-putting for thus lengthy? “Merrily” is again on Broadway, in a manufacturing directed by Maria Friedman, and it’s lastly successful. One large cause is its Frank, performed by Jonathan Groff, whose pure heat shines by even within 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 component that may generally be contemptible—for the primary time, I may see Frank as each the dreamer who believes in greatness and the glib charmer who believes each 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 beforehand nominated in 2016, for “Hamilton,” within the scene-stealing a part of King George III, and in 2007, for the indie-rock musical “Spring Awakening,” because the rebellious schoolboy Melchior Gabor—his breakout position, reverse Lea Michele. Groff had come to New York three years earlier, as a stagestruck, closeted nineteen-year-old from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the place he grew up amongst Mennonites and was obsessive about the unique solid recording of “Annie Get Your Gun.” “Merrily,” with its themes of growing old, idealism, and the vicissitudes of present enterprise, has had Groff desirous about his personal path towards stardom. “Doing this present on Broadway at the moment, transferring to New York twenty years in the past, I’ve now lived the timeframe of the present,” he advised me not too long ago.

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

I need to discuss by the previous twenty years of your life, however, within the spirit of “Merrily We Roll Alongside,” do it in reverse chronological order, beginning within the current and arriving in the mean time once you got here to New York.

Certain! I really like this.

Let’s begin with the extraordinarily latest previous. Three days in the past, you went to the Met Gala. How was your evening?

The massive headline for me was Lea Michele was pregnant, and I sat subsequent to her on the desk, holding her large practice factor whereas she peed. She took it off, and I used to be holding that and her purse. I noticed Zac Posen, who was at our desk, assist Kim Kardashian up the little tiny stairs, and I mentioned to him, “Wow, that was such a candy second of the homosexual serving to the diva.” I used to be referring to him, like with me and Lea. It’s a zoo of well-known individuals. I used to be going to go to the after-parties, however my physique was simply, like, “No.” I hit a wall from the reveals and the epicness of the week, with the Tony nominations. So I used to be residence by eleven-forty-five, and in mattress by midnight.

The Broadway manufacturing of “Merrily” opened final fall. You advised Jimmy Fallon that Meryl Streep got here to your dressing room, the place you’ve gotten a bar named BARbra, and she or he took a video of you and despatched it to Barbra Streisand. Who else has been there?

The very first thing that involves me is sitting in BARbra in October or November, ingesting whiskey with Sutton Foster. I got here to New York as a teen-ager and noticed her six instances in “Totally Trendy Millie”—now she’s in BARbra, dropping in for, like, an hour and a half after the present, and it’s so full circle. Who else? Patti LuPone was there—one other large one for me. Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Martin McDonagh. Glenn Shut despatched again a bottle of champagne to be chilled in BARbra, which we drank collectively.

This present, like each Sondheim present, could be very dense. Over the course of three hundred-plus performances, are there sure moments which have abruptly hit you a unique method, or that you simply understand have a double that means?

Double, triple, quadruple, infinity. I’m nonetheless having revelations, which actually makes me imagine that it’s a real murals. Maria [Friedman] talks about how, with Sondheim’s writing, he “leaves house,” which is why it’s all the time new. He all the time wanted to work with a collaborator, and she or he talked in regards to the actor being a necessary collaborator. She mentioned the lyric he wrote in “Sunday within the Park with George”—“Something you do, / let it come from you, / then will probably be new”—is Sondheim’s directive to the actor.

The Tuesday after the Tony nominations, I received to the theatre, screamed with Lindsay [Mendez], screamed with Dan [Radcliffe]. [He chokes up.] Then I used to be singing “Rising Up”—“So previous mates, don’t you see we will have all of it?”—which has meant so many alternative issues to me within the run of the present. At yesterday’s matinée, Dan and I had been sitting on the roof singing “Our Time”: “As much as us, pal, to point out ’em.” We’ve accomplished it 1,000,000 instances. We take a look at one another, and Dan simply fucking loses it crying. He needed to look away from me. We talked about it afterward, like, “What the fuck was that?” I don’t know. One thing simply occurred.

While you began the present, in 2022, at New York Theatre Workshop, had been there kinks in your efficiency that you simply’ve since found out?

I bear in mind feeling shocked at being disliked for thus lengthy within the first half of the primary act. It was very clear from the vitality of the viewers that they beloved Mary within the opening scene—instantly, they’re on her aspect. I’m out right here as a homosexual man, enjoying this straight, two-timing Hollywood producer who’s dishonest on his spouse. I’m already having to really feel assured in a method that I don’t in my on a regular basis life, this type of swagger. And the viewers hates me. I bear in mind feeling scared and self-conscious. Maria, in that preview course of, actually helped with that, as a result of she talked in regards to the worth of when it’s actual, and also you’re not enjoying ugly simply to be ugly. The one line that I actually struggled with was “I’m simply performing prefer it all issues so individuals can’t see how a lot I hate my life and the way a lot I want the entire goddam factor was over.” That could be a actually confronting factor to say.

Folks would possibly say that this is likely one of the elementary flaws of “Merrily We Roll Alongside”—that you simply’re confronted with this cynical, smarmy Frank within the first act, and also you don’t actually perceive him till the present’s over. I can think about going into this not realizing if that’s a solvable downside, as a result of it hadn’t been for many years.

Nicely, Maria needed us to search out the reality. She actually believed that these characters weren’t archetypes, that there’s humanity within the writing from starting to finish. I discovered it after that first week or two of previews, not being so afraid. The road that made me need to do the present was “I’ve made just one mistake in my life, however I’ve made it time and again and over. That was saying sure once I meant no.” I’ve accomplished that rather a lot in my life, and there was one thing that felt just like the closeted model of myself. George Furth and Stephen Sondheim—I can solely think about being homosexual on the time that they had been homosexual. Although Frank is straight, there’s a lot repression that feels very acquainted to me.

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