Album Review: MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG Announces And Releases Cast Album In Same Night

It was a surprise to everyone... and a good one, too.

By: Nov. 15, 2023
Album Review: MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG Announces And Releases Cast Album In Same Night

Christmas has come early this year, and it was a surprise - a BIG one.

Last night during the curtain call for the Broadway revival of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, Jonathan Groff announced that a cast recording had been made.  And the audience erupted with applause.  Groff went on to announce that the cast recording would be available digitally AT MIDNIGHT.  And the crowd went wild.  And visions of theater buffs staying up late, like children waiting for Santa Claus, tap danced in producers’ heads.  What is more, if you check your Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, you will probably see a plethora of posts that would indicate that that is exactly what happened.

I didn’t stay up late.  This girl needs her sleep.  But I did get up this morning and the first thing I did (well… almost) was put in my airpods and skip right over to Spotify, where I have been in musical theater heaven all morning.  The new MERRILY is one of the best things to happen to Broadway in a long time.  I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade if their favorite cast album of 2023 was Funny Girl or Parade or any of the other wonderful shows or albums we got this year - it’s just that I have been waiting for a great follow-up recording since the original 1981 cast album, which has remained my preferred recording of the troubled musical, over the decades.  Every time a new cast recording was released, I rushed to the disc to see what kind of growth had been achieved, as songs were re-written, new songs were added, dialogue was filtered in, and as directors and productions tried to make the play finally work.  And while there were merits to each of those recordings, nothing ever satisfied my Sondheim (and Merrily) obsessed self as much as that OG recording.

So when I started this new recording, I was immediately judgmental (but remaining open) because the overture (a favorite of mine) wasn’t sounding as good as the one I have heard over a hundred times…. But then it happened.  The overture turned a corner in its arrangement, seeming to add more horns and some new musical phrasing and an urgency, a fire all its own, completely new to the Merrily overture experience, and, before I could stop myself, I was smiling.  And I’ve been smiling since.

The new Merrily We Roll Along is an achievement in cast recording, bringing together all of the best of previous productions and recordings in a stunning ensemble performance made up of a cast of singers who not only know how to sing and how to act for the recording studio - they also have some of the prettiest voices to be laid down on a track.  Sometimes theatrical voices that work on the stage don’t translate well to the recording booth.  That is not the case here.  The three leads sound gorgeous on all their numbers.  Lindsay Mendez has never sounded so good (and that’s saying a lot), Daniel Radcliffe sings beautifully (which we already knew) and with a letter-perfect American accent, and never before has Franklin Shepard sounded so lush.  The quality of Jonathan Groff’s vocals is pure peaches and cream, so lush and pristine that you might find yourself crying during the quietly heartbreaking “Growing Up.”  If the success of an album relied, solely, on the beauty of the voices, then this one would be a success - especially when you consider the voices of the other actors in this musical.  The ensemble work is out of this world, rich with harmonies that will warm you in the belly like a brandy or a hot chocolate, and the actors in supporting roles like Beth (Katie Rose Clarke) and Gussie (Krystal Joy Brown) are going toe-to-toe with the three powerhouses whose faces are on the album cover.  It’s enough to make you want get yourself to the theater to see the show live, even if it takes a plane ticket.

As a musical theater original cast recording, the album (and everyone involved, in every capacity) has one job, and one job only: tell the listener what is happening in the story, in case this is their only exposure to that story.  Well, they did it.  There is dialogue added, but not so much that it either distracts (which is counter productive) or bores (which is worse).  The amount of incidental dialogue included has been meticulously chosen and calculated so that the story is told but the focus remains on the score.  The acting moments from each soloist serve as a window into the character, with Mary’s sarcastic bitterness rising to the top of “That Frank” with humor that will make you bust out with just one “Ha!” from time to time.  Gussie’s front-and-center personality oozes from every word Krystal Joy Brown either says or sings.  The conflict of love and betrayal is palpable in Katie Rose Clarke’s “Not A Day Goes By,” including a separate track, just for the dialogue, but the meat of the emotion is in the musical performance.  Daniel Radcliffe’s “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” isn’t just the best one since Lonny Price gave that gift to the world, it’s better - unthinkable and sacrilegious as that is to say.  This is the only time that I’ve cried while listening to this number, and the tears fell because never before has the desperation been this big.  Radcliffe has managed to make it go to 11, and the result is that you might actually find yourself have sympathy anxiety over the musical monologue.

And we have to talk about Jonathan Groff.  I hadn’t really ever noticed before that Franklin Shepard has so little material in the show.  All of his songs are group songs or numbers with Mary and Charley.  But, the character being the Maypole of the whole show, it FEELS like he has a lot of material.  But he doesn’t.  On that OG OBC his solo was “Not a day Goes By.”  Now his solo is “Growing Up” and it is so beautiful.  In the absence of solos, the actor playing Franklin Shepard has to make all of those group numbers their playground and their proving ground, which is just what Jonathan does.  Every choice made by this accomplished actor and spectacular singer is right on.  You can hear the heartbreak and hope, the arrogance and ardor, and in all the right places.  You have permission to like him at the right times and to sneer at him at the wrong ones.  It is a nuanced and knowing performance delivered by one of Broadway’s best.

In the name of saving the best for last - the iconic final two numbers of Merrily We Roll Along New Broadway Cast Recording are everything you hope they will be.  If you had told me, yesterday at nine pm, that I would hear anything, ever, that came close to doing to me, emotionally, what those two tracks do on the original cast recording from 1981, I would have laughed at you.  But this morning, I was completely undone by these new performances of “Opening Doors” (in which the always wonderful Reg Rogers displays a LOVELY singing voice) and “Our Time” and I am quite certain that all the other die hards out there will feel the same way.  Well… there are always hold outs, but anyone who decides not to give themselves over, entirely, to this recording is making that choice.  And in the opinion of this writer (and obvious Merrily fan) that would be (at the most) a mistake and (at the least) a shame because this cast recording is one to spend money on, one to play, and one to play again.  So, in time for Thanksgiving, thank you to Masterworks Broadway for putting out this album, and in time for all the December holidays, whichever one you celebrate:  Merry Merrily.

MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG NEW BROADWAY CAST RECORDING is a Masterworks Broadway release.  Masterworks Broadway is a division of Sony Music Entertainment.

The album is available on all digital platforms HERE and the physical CD will be released January 12th.  

The Masterworks Broadway website is HERE.

Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway has a website HERE.

Merrily We Roll Along has music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a book by George Furth and has currently been directed by Maria Friedman.

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