Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” was a legendary flop, closing after only 16 performances in 1981, and considered such an insoluble puzzle that it has never been revived on Broadway.
Until now. A “Merrily” revival is under way at the Hudson Theatre, with “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe in the cast, and advance ticket sales were so strong that the run has already been extended. Currently in previews and slated to officially open on Oct. 10, “Merrily” is guaranteed to run a lot longer than 16 performances this time.
“Merrily” (more detail on the new production below) is among the most high-profile productions in what shapes up as a pretty varied Broadway season — one that will be shaped by revivals, reunions, and reimaginings, as well as new work.
(One of the most anticipated shows of the fall will not be on Broadway: “Here We Are,” the final musical by Sondheim, who died in 2021. A collaboration between the composer-lyricist and playwright David Ives, who wrote the book, “Here We Are” is adapted from two films by Luis Buñuel, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise” and “The Exterminating Angel.” Directed by Joe Mantello, “Here We Are” has begun performances at The Shed, a nonprofit cultural center in New York.)
As theaters throw open their doors, producers will be keeping a vigilant eye on the box office. While the return of tourists to New York has enabled Broadway to recapture audiences more successfully than a lot of regional theaters, a potential surge in COVID cases this fall and winter could quickly darken the current mood of cautious optimism.
With that in mind, here are some of the Broadway productions I’m looking forward to:
“Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch.”
Leslie Odom Jr., whose career has soared since he originated the role of Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” is playing the title figure in the first Broadway revival of Ossie Davis’s 1961 skewering of racism in the Jim Crow South. Purlie Victorious Judson is a charismatic Black traveling preacher who returns to his small hometown in Georgia to buy back the community’s old church — now used as a barn — and transform it into the town’s first racially integrated house of worship. Getting the money for that will require outwitting Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (Jay O. Sanders), the hard-hearted owner of a cotton plantation. Directed by Kenny Leon, “Purlie Victorious” opened Wednesday at the Music Box Theatre.
“I Need That”
Theresa Rebeck’s new comedy stars Danny DeVito, that curmudgeon’s curmudgeon, as a widower and compulsive hoarder who faces government eviction if he doesn’t clean up his property. DeVito’s daughter will be played by his real-life daughter, Lucy DeVito. The cast also includes Ray Anthony Thomas, with Moritz von Stuelpnagel at the helm. Previews start Oct. 13 and opening night is set for Nov. 2 at the American Airlines Theatre.
“Jaja’s African Hair Braiding”
Jocelyn Bioh made a considerable splash with “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” including a stellar 2019 production by Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company. Now Bioh is making her Broadway playwriting debut with “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding.” Directed by Whitney White (”Macbeth in Stride,” “What to Send Up When It Goes Down”), the play focuses on a group of immigrant women from West Africa working in a hair braiding salon in Harlem as they navigate the complexities of their new land. Currently in previews at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” is slated to officially open Tuesday.
“Melissa Etheridge: My Window”
The success of Bruce Springsteen’s “Springsteen on Broadway” caught the attention of other singer-songwriters with a large back catalog. The latest to tread the boards is Melissa Etheridge, who has crafted a solo show in which she blends performances of her songs with stories about her Kansas upbringing and her pathbreaking career. “My Window,” directed by Amy Tinkham, has begun performances at Circle in the Square Theatre.
“Gutenberg! The Musical!”
When they teamed up in the 2011 premiere of “The Book of Mormon,” Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad made up an unforgettable pair as clueless Mormon missionaries intent on saving souls in Africa. Now they’re reuniting for “Gutenberg! The Musical!,” playing another clueless duo: the creators of a musical about Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, who perform their show at an audition for potential backers. Created by Scott Brown and Anthony King, with direction by Alex Timbers (”Moulin Rouge”), “Gutenberg! The Musical!” is in previews at the James Earl Jones Theatre, with the official opening set for Oct. 12.
The play by the gifted Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (”An Octoroon”) concerns the disturbing revelations that surface when an Arkansas family seeks to sort out the estate of their late father. Representing Jacob-Jenkins’s full Broadway playwriting debut (he contributed material to the 2022 Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth”), “Appropriate” will begin in December at the Hayes Theater. When I reviewed the 2015 production of “Appropriate” by Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company, I found the play’s fundamental message to be that “we’re all haunted by history, try to bury it though we might.”
Previews will begin Oct. 31, with an opening on Nov. 16, for a revival of this riotous musical sendup of the Arthurian legend, based on the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and created by former Python Eric Idle (lyrics and book) and John Du Prez (music). Playing King Arthur will be James Monroe Iglehart, who won a Tony Award in 2014 for his performance as the Genie in “Aladdin.” The supporting cast in “Spamalot” includes Nik Walker, son of longtime Channel 4 news anchor Liz Walker, as Sir Dennis Galahad. Direction and choreography are by Josh Rhodes.
“How to Dance in Ohio"
Set at a group counseling center in Columbus, Ohio, “How to Dance in Ohio” is a musical about young adults on the autism spectrum who are preparing to take a very big step: attending a spring formal dance. Performances begin in November at the Belasco Theatre. It is directed by Sammi Cannold (who helmed “Evita” at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater earlier this year), with lyrics and book by Rebekah Greer Melocik and music by Jacob Yandura.
“Days of Wine and Roses”
My anticipation is sky-high for this one. Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James, two of Broadway’s biggest talents, will star in the musical adaptation of “Days of Wine and Roses,” the shattering 1962 film about a married couple struggling with alcoholism. Directed by Michael Greif, the musical reunites composer-lyricist Adam Guettel and bookwriter Craig Lucas, who collaborated on 2005′s “The Light in the Piazza” — a musical that featured O’Hara. In what is billed as a limited four-month engagement, “Days of Wine and Roses” begins previews at Studio 54 on Jan. 6, then opens officially Jan. 28.
As we move deeper into the Broadway season, there will still be plenty to see, including:
Scott Ellis directs this revival of John Patrick Shanley’s drama, in which Liev Schreiber plays a parish priest and Tyne Daly plays a nun and principal of a Catholic school who suspects him of sexually abusing a student. Performances start in February at the American Airlines Theatre.
With music and lyrics by Ingrid Michaelson and a book by Bekah Brunstetter (”The Cake”), the musical adaptation of the best-selling novel by Nicholas Sparks about how love can endure time and circumstance will begin performances at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in February.
Performances start in March at the Marquis Theatre of a revival of this much-loved musical, with the story of Oz set to soul, gospel, and rock music. “The Wiz” will feature Nichelle Lewis in her Broadway debut as Dorothy, and none other than Wayne Brady as the Wiz. With music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls and a book by William F. Brown, plus additional writing by Amber Ruffin, “The Wiz" will be directed by Schele Williams and choreographed by JaQuel Knight.
Rachel McAdams (”Mean Girls," “Spotlight") will make her Broadway debut in April at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in Amy Herzog’s “Mary Jane," directed by Anne Kauffman. McAdams will play a single mother struggling to care for her special-needs child.
”An Enemy of the People”
Playwright Herzog is also the creative force behind a new version of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” slated for Broadway next spring. (Herzog recently revised another Ibsen work, “A Doll’s House,” for a Broadway production starring Jessica Chastain.) Jeremy Strong (Kendall Roy in “Succession”) will portray a medical officer who becomes a social pariah when he finds that the water in his town’s public baths — on which the community depends economically — is contaminated. Sam Gold will direct.
Jessica Lange, Jim Parsons, and Celia Keenan-Bolger will star in the premiere of Paula Vogel’s family drama about a woman raising two children in the 1960s amid the disruptions of relocating. Directed by Tina Landau, performances of “The Mother" are slated to begin next spring.
Barry Manilow (music) and Bruce Sussman (book and lyrics) have been developing this musical for decades. It’s based on the true story of the Comedian Harmonists, a hugely popular singing group who ran afoul of the Nazi Party because the group included Jewish singers. With direction and choreography by Warren Carlyle, performances of “Harmony” are slated to begin at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in October.
Chekhov’s drama is translated by Heidi Schreck (”What the Constitution Means to Me”). It starts in April at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.
Yes, another revival of the Kander and Ebb classic, slated for next spring. The acclaimed London production starred Eddie Redmayne as the Master of Ceremonies at the decadent Kit Kat Club in Berlin and Jessie Buckley as singer Sally Bowles. Redmayne is expected to join the Broadway production.
Now, back to “Merrily We Roll Along.”
Directed by Maria Friedman, the revival stars Radcliffe as lyricist Charley Kringas, Jonathan Groff as composer-turned-movie-producer Franklin Shepard, and Lindsay Mendez as writer Mary Flynn.
With a book by George Furth, Sondheim’s “Company" collaborator, “Merrily” unspools in reverse chronology from 1980 to 1955 as it traces the dissolution of Charley and Franklin’s songwriting partnership and friendship, and the toll that takes on Mary. (A different production of “Merrily,” also directed by Friedman, was presented in Boston at the Huntington in 2017.)
Back in 1981, “Merrily We Roll Along” proved to be a case of life-imitating-art: It spelled the end for the extraordinary artistic collaboration between Sondheim and director Harold Prince that had virtually defined musical theater in the 1970s (”Follies,” “Company,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” and “Sweeney Todd”).
Radcliffe is not much of a singer, at least judging by his performance in the 2011 Broadway revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” But that revival also proved that his vocal limitations don’t matter much, because Radcliffe has charm and likability to burn.