For Jonathan Groff, Merrily We Roll Along Feels Like an Exorcism

Jonathan Groff

Jonathan Groff, photographed by Jenny Anderson.

When Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince’s Merrily We Roll Along premiered at the Alvin Theater in 1981, it was, by most accounts, a flop, as we say nowadays. For its structural ambitions—the story is told in reverse-chronological order—and its rather bleak prognosis on the corrosive effects of fame and money, the story of three best friends, including the composer-lyricist duo Franklin Shephard and Charley Kringas, and the gradual dissolution of their relationships failed to resonate with audiences and critics like the hot-streak of Sondheim-Prince hits that preceded it, including Company and Sweeney Todd. “What’s really being wasted here is Mr. Sondheim’s talent,” wrote Frank Rich in The New York Times. “And that’s why we watch Merrily We Roll Along with an ever-mounting, and finally upsetting, sense of regret.”

Rich, for his part, was right to point out the show’s elemental sadness. When I left the Hudson Theater last month, where director Maria Friedman has mounted a poignant and utterly contemporary revival starring Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez, the show’s exhortation to “tend your dreams” was blunted, in part, by its harsh understanding of how people change and money corrupts and friendships splinter. For Groff in particular, who’s earned a Tony Award nomination for his swaggering turn as the prodigious composer Franklin Shepard, the experience of starring in Merrily We Roll Along is provoking a tender sort of reappraisal of the wide-eyed, closeted 20-something who arrived on Broadway two decades ago in Spring Awakening, tending his own dreams. “There’s so many powerful parallels and I’m feeling the opportunity to release a lot of the tension I was holding at that time,” he told me earlier this month over coffee in Greenwich Village (just before showing face at a Tony’s luncheon). “This character feels like an exorcism of the lightest and darkest parts of myself.” With easy candor—and a charm not dissimilar to the kind he demonstrates in the role—Groff opened up about learning to live without shame and what Looking, the polarizing HBO series he starred in from 2014 to 2016, taught him about show business.


JAKE NEVINS: Hey, Jonathan. Congrats on your Tony nomination.

JONATHON GROFF: Thank you so much.

NEVINS: That’s exciting. How do you feel?

GROFF: Oh my god, I feel super emotional. I’ve been crying a lot these days. Last time I was nominated was during Hamilton, which was like seven or eight years ago. And I wasn’t in the show when the nominations happened. I had left to do a TV show. So this is the first time since Spring Awakening that I’ve experienced the intensity of awards season on Broadway while being in the show. I’m having a lot of flashbacks to being 22 years old.

NEVINS: Oh, I bet. I saw Stereophonic the other day the day nominations came out, or maybe the day after, and the energy in the theater was palpable. I’m sure it’s like that every show, but I felt it nevertheless.

GROFF: That’s one of my favorite things about theater. The energy in the theater is in a constant state of flux because we’re all human beings and we come to the theater every day with our different vibes. So even in the dead of winter, there was a really specific cold snap in March and you could feel it in the audience. Then, when spring hits, you can feel the release. And certainly with Tony nominations, it’s like a shot of adrenaline to everybody in the cast and everybody in the theater. We’re really riding the wave right now. There’s even a moment in one of the songs at the top of Act II where we sing about the Tony Awards.

NEVINS: “It’s a Hit!”

GROFF: Which has always been meta since we started on Broadway and it’s actually become a hit at the show, which is a miracle. There’s this line about the Tony Awards, and on the day of the Tony nominations it stopped the show. I couldn’t keep going with the line. And then I changed the blocking to face upstage during that moment when the character of Frank is faux accepting his faux Tony award. I kept doing that for like, a week. And then we were rehearsing for our performance that we’re going to do with the Tony Awards and–

NEVINS: Can you tell me which song you’re doing?

GROFF: I can’t tell you the song.

NEVINS: Damn it.

GROFF: And Lindsay said, “Jonathan, you can stop facing upstage. That was just a thing for the nominations.” And Maria [Friedman], our director was like, “What? What have you been doing? Please face the audience as I directed you to.” So we’re playing with that energy right now, and focusing the adrenaline and still telling the story is the trick of being an actor in a show like this.

NEVINS: Well, in a show about the perils of meteoric fame and the effect that can have on one’s friendships, I’d imagine it’s hard not to address it in some meta way.

GROFF: Completely. We’re singing about dreams, and broken dreams, and tending your dreams, all of that. It’s all very meta for anyone that’s in this industry. There are certain shows that are beyond theater, where it’s offering something up for the audience for them to be introspective about in a very direct, almost spiritual way, which is what this show feels like. Especially knowing that [Stephen] Sondheim and Hal Prince didn’t speak for decades after this show, and after reading Mary Rodgers’ [Richard Rodgers’ daughter] fucking phenomenal memoir, Shy. Have you read this book?

NEVINS: I have not.

GROFF: It is savage and amazing and I highly recommend it.

NEVINS: Who takes the heat?

GROFF: Everyone.

NEVINS: No one’s spared?

GROFF: No one is safe. In the first 10 pages, Arthur Laurents gets eviscerated. But she talks a lot about being in love with Sondheim her whole life and speaks briefly about the time that they tried to be a couple. 

NEVINS: That never works out.

GROFF: That never works out. And even the character of Frank in the show is straight, but the dynamic of Mary and Frank is, to me, a very gay guy-straight girl relationship. There’s an intimacy, but it’s never going to go into romance. Especially since I’ve read Mary Rodgers memoir, I’m like, “Oh, there’s so much personal, almost diaristic energy in the material,” so it strikes really close to the bone.

Jonathan Groff

NEVINS: Well, that’s the thing about Sondheim. For me, his particular genius is the sort of confessional specificity of the music, which he still manages to make universal and widely appealing. “Finishing the Hat,” for example, is very specifically about the pleasures and pitfalls of leading a creative life, but absolutely anyone could be moved by it. And I often am.

GROFF: Totally. In all the interviews that I’ve watched, he was quite militant about separating and not sharing a lot about his personal life so that people wouldn’t draw conclusions. Even though something is autobiographical, it can be sprinkled in different ways in many different characters. So maybe he protected his personal life from the work in that he wanted to just keep it sacred and have it speak for itself, which it does.

NEVINS: What were your first encounters with Merrily in particular?

GROFF: Gideon Glick, who was in Spring Awakening with me, sent a text to the Spring Awakening text chain saying, “This documentary came out called The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. And it’s devastating and beautiful, and it reminded me so much of us. You all have to go see it.” So I watched the documentary about Merrily that Lonny Price made and was blown away by it. At the Hollywood Bowl, I had done Sondheim on Sondheim, where I sang the role of Frank in “Opening Doors” and Jesse Tyler Ferguson did “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” so I knew the songs from there. Funny enough, we had just finished our Spring Awakening reunion concert, which was in the fall of 2021, and we were making a documentary about the concert and about the show. The Merrily doc was a big inspiration for that because of how they went back and forth and showed them as kids and showed them as adults. And then in January 2022, me and Jim Carnahan, who cast me in Spring Awakening 16 years before, were in a film club during COVID. After we saw at the Film Forum in January 2022, he said to me, “We’re going to come to you with an offer for Frank in Merrily We Roll Along. Do you know the show?” And I was like, “I know pieces of it, but I don’t know the show.” Maria’s production in London was on YouTube, so I watched it and I died for it. I just thought it was fucking genius, never having seen it and obviously knowing from the documentary that the show was originally a flop. So it took six months between January and June 2022 for us to figure out the dates. Dan [Radcliffe] was already attached to play Charley, and then Lindsay [Mendez] came on, and then we were off and running. 

NEVINS: Well, I don’t want to bore you with a question about playing straight, but—

GROFF: That’s not boring at all.

NEVINS: Well, it’s played out. Nevertheless, I’m curious, when you were a baby gay, if you could have seen yourself working up the courage to play not only a straight man, because that’s neither here nor there, but one with Frank’s machismo and womanizing and general arrogance.

GROFF: Well it’s interesting, because the character of Frank—I don’t think that he’s gay, and I don’t think that he’s a repressed gay at all. He’s straight. But two gay men wrote him. And the emotionality and the interior life of the character feels incredibly gay to me, and so relatable. That line of his, “I spent my life saying yes when I meant no,” feels pretty gay to me, as a guy that was closeted until I was 23. I really credit playing the role of Melchior [in Spring Awakening]. I didn’t have his outspokenness and his bravery in my personal life, but I came out three weeks after I left the show. It was like I had worked this muscle of speaking my mind via the character that then, when I left the show, there was nowhere else to put it but in my real life. It was like, “boom,” and everything completely shifted weeks after I left.

NEVINS: What did that feel like?

GROFF: It was a weird thing because I was so compartmentalized. I didn’t feel like I had been living a life that was such a huge lie, necessarily, because I felt like my friendships and my work were authentic. But there was this elephant in the room that I felt embarrassed and shameful about. I think this is also related to growing up in Pennsylvania, where you don’t talk about sex at all. Even my brother, who is straight, never talked about his girlfriend. There was just some level of shame around sex and talking about relationships in general. But when I came out, it felt like I was starting over, in a way, to integrate who I was into how I’d been. I mean, I was in a closeted relationship with a guy for three-and-a half-years during all of Spring Awakening. He was my roommate. 

NEVINS: Classic.

GROFF: So classic. I came out and I broke up with him and moved into my own apartment and it was like starting over again. I left the show and I came out to my brother first. Actually, I was in Italy by myself for a week. And then my brother was coming to join me. But first, I was in Florence by myself and I went to see Michelangelo’s David and I started hysterically crying. I was journaling in a piazza in Florence. I had kept a journal for years, but I’d never journal about my personal life.

NEVINS: Wait, so what were you journaling about?

GROFF: [Laughs] I was like, “Tonight in the show I felt like I really did this, but I really had to work on this. And the audience…” And then I was like, “Cody is my boyfriend, I am gay.” Like, baby steps. Then I came out to my brother, then my parents, then my friends. But It wasn’t until a year-and-a-half later, in the fall of 2009, I was in love and dating Gavin Creel and he had organized these buses of artists from New York to go to Washington, D.C. for the Marriage Equality March on Washington. And a woman from was there interviewing people and she said, “Who do you represent at this March on Washington?”

NEVINS: By which she meant, are you gay?

GROFF: Basically.

NEVINS: What an artful way to broach the topic.

GROFF: I froze. I hadn’t even thought about coming out as a public person. She was like, “Oh my god, never mind. I’m so sorry.” And then she moved along. And I really remember this moment of looking over to the right and seeing Gavin. He had also just recently come out a year or two before, and seeing him with a bullhorn corralling the people, god, I was so in love with him. I was like, “Oh my god, I am coming out. I’m coming out. I’m coming out.” So I went back over to her and I was like, “Hi, please excuse my hesitation, I’m gay.” And that was how I came out publicly at the March on Washington for Marriage Equality.

NEVINS: That’s wonderful.

GROFF: Yeah. I don’t know if I’ve ever told that story.

Jonathan Groff

NEVINS: What were the next few weeks like?

GROFF: Well, I was still feeling embarrassed. I don’t know if it’s the deep-rooted shame of a Mennonite—my dad’s side of the family is Mennonite. But in 2008 and 2009, it felt like something I had to do. But it didn’t make me feel good. Being out still had a degree of pain to it, for some reason.

NEVINS: Well, you come out, and then life’s problems continue.

GROFF: Exactly. Then, Looking happened. Those years with those guys and finding a community of people and support via that show was completely life-altering. Because it’s even more than self-love. It’s more like true self-acceptance. That show was big for me.

NEVINS: It was for many of us.

GROFF: Even in that show, Patrick was imperfect in ways that I was aware of and in ways that I wasn’t aware of until people were criticizing the show and criticizing the character. And I’m feeling like, “Oh my god, that’s me. I’m offering up all of this imperfection.”

NEVINS: Well, very shortly after it first aired, I had a crush on my boss at the time, who was British, like Russell [Tovey’s] character. And I was like, “This is so hot and romantic and I’m living in Looking.”

GROFF: That’s wild.

NEVINS: It was pretty fucked up.

GROFF: Wait, but the fact that he was British too. Were you watching the show together?

NEVINS: We were not. That would’ve been unbearable.

GROFF: How did it end?

NEVINS: It ended up with me leaving the job and him dating someone more age-appropriate, who happened to be a Broadway actor like yourself.

GROFF: Oh my god. It’s such a small world.

NEVINS: It really is. Anyway, this is about you, not me.

GROFF: No, but that’s like, a crazy connection. Thank you for sharing.

NEVINS: You’re welcome. All of which is to say, Looking was a lightning rod. And of course, due mostly to the scarcity of anything like it, shows and films and plays that are depicting contemporary gay life bear this incredible burden of representing all of us, which is impossible. How did it feel to be a part of something that needed to mean so much to so many people? I ask because, well, you seem like a sensitive guy.

GROFF: Yes. It takes an armor to protect your sensitivity in this business. Looking was part of that learning experience because of the way that it was received. When we were shooting the first season, it felt like a journal. All of us were just doing journal entries in front of the camera. It was incredibly therapeutic and really life-changing. We all felt so supported by our directors and our writers. HBO is run by a lot of gays. And Casey Bloys, who now runs HBO, was our comedy exec on Looking. He had me sign the Out cover and he put it in his office during the first season of the show. It was pretty much a fairytale that first year we were working, without any eyes or expectation on us. How the community was going to react honestly did not even occur to me at all. Then the response from the community was so extreme and the negative feedback was so loud and so harsh that it was like a splash of cold water. I remember the first teaser came out and there were all these articles about how terrible the show was going to be before an episode had even aired. And I was like, “Whoa.” That was when I started to learn the art of walking with an open heart and also protecting myself. 

NEVINS: What does that look like?

GROFF: It’s like, having empathy and respect for the haters and honoring them and understanding that that opinion can exist and I can still be in my lane and express myself. Just because someone says it’s terrible doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth making.

NEVINS: I’m glad you all made it.

GROFF: Thank you. When we came back to do the second season, it took more effort to shut out the voices. The work, miraculously, was still just as freeing, because we had built such a wonderful foundation with season one. But there were a lot more conversations before we would get to a scene. We couldn’t answer to everybody. We could only tell our own personal stories. So that’s what we did for the second season and that’s what we did in the movie. Literally today, someone said to me, “Were you in Looking?” And I said, “Yes, what made you watch Looking?” And he said, “I was looking for gay TV shows and there aren’t any and that was the one I came across.” I was like, “Wow, it’s 2024 and there still aren’t a lot of gay shows.” But things are evolving in their own kind of way.

NEVINS: Well, I do think that part of the reason Looking took so much heat was that it came out around the same time as a show like Girls, another hyper-realistic portrayal of a certain micro-community, and in an era when we were being conditioned to look for representations of ourselves in art. Like, when did “that makes me feel seen” become the highest praise one could bestow on a television show? Nevertheless, I can imagine part of you wanted to respond and say, “This is a hyper-specific show about a hyper-specific group of friends and at no point did we say that it represented all of you, too.”

GROFF: Yes. I mean, I remember being in a state of shock because Andrew Haigh, who made Weekend, which I died for, and Michael Lannan, who created the show, they’re such gentle, lovely people. They weren’t trying to be revolutionary. They were, very simply, telling their personal stories. The show was originally called “Lorimer,” which is where Michael lived off the Lorimer stop in Brooklyn. It was based on his friends and his life. So the shock was like, “Oh, we didn’t know what we were expected to answer to.” It’s funny, because when I was doing Mindhunter, David Fincher said to me, “Actors get too much credit when something is good and too much blame when something is bad.”

NEVINS: Right.

GROFF: I mean, look at Merrily. The reception to any work of art at any given time is so out of the hands of the makers of that product.

NEVINS: It’s kind of shocking to me how poorly received the show was in 1981, especially given how strong this production is. I’m like, wow, they must have fucked it up real bad.

GROFF: [Laughs] Well, Hal and Steve were coming off the back of five hits in a row, and it was the musical after Sweeney Todd, which some consider his greatest show. So maybe there was a certain energy. I mean, there’s a lot of autobiographical energy in these characters. So casting it with 20-ish year-olds may have allowed the creators a kind of distance from what happens in the first half of the show. The knives that are being thrown in that first scene alone—it’s so dark and so depressing and so full of regret. Our director says she thinks that Sondheim put all of his regret into this show so that audiences could potentially transcend their own. Now, it’s cast with adults playing that first half, which is maybe easier to watch as an audience member. I don’t know, maybe that was part of why it wasn’t resonating so acutely back in the day.

NEVINS: That could be. So, the show ends on this wonderful moment of hope. They’re looking at the stars. But it’s sort of leaden with the knowledge of how their friendships splinter because the story is told backwards. I’m curious how you understand the function of the reverse-chronological structure. I think it makes the ending really bittersweet.

GROFF: Well, I think to watch it in chronological order would be devastating. Before I had started the show, when I was listening to and learning the music before the first day of rehearsal, I couldn’t listen to “Our Time” without hysterically crying, I couldn’t even sing it. And then we were in rehearsal and I still literally couldn’t sing it. It couldn’t come out. And the cast will attest, it wasn’t until we were in front of the audience that I was like, “Okay, now I can sing it.” I think that the purity that is so big in us when we set out to fulfill our dreams gets smaller and smaller as the time goes by. That voice that drives you into that first thrust of life inevitably gets quieter. But I think, for most of us, it doesn’t go away completely. I think it’s why so many people are crying in the audience during the rooftop scene, because it’s inviting them to touch that part of themselves. I think Merrily sends us back to that sense of hope and optimism and invites us to hold it with all of the other traumatic things that are happening to us.

NEVINS: And there’s something particularly moving about holding that hope with the knowledge of all the ways it’ll be dashed and broken, eventually. 

GROFF: Exactly, and knowing that the people that you’re friends with when you’re 20 are probably not going to be the people that you’re friends with when you’re 40. As for Frank and Charley and Mary, I don’t know if they’ll go back to being close friends again, but I do think there will be amends made. The thing that definitely happens is that Frank gets back in touch with his soul. He’s going to listen to the inner voice of that 20-year-old kid he lost touch with.

NEVINS: Well, I’ll leave you with this. What’s the status of your inner voice? By all accounts, you’re living your dream, but I don’t want to draw any conclusions.

GROFF: This feels like it’s been a rebirth, a bit of a renaissance, and a release. It’s like I’m re-experiencing what I experienced when I was 22 with Spring Awakening, but now as a flashback, which is what Merrily is about. I moved to New York in 2004, 20 years ago. This show takes place over the course of 20 years. It’s about three friends. Spring Awakening was about these three characters. There’s so many powerful parallels and I’m feeling the opportunity to release a lot of the tension I was holding at that time. It feels like this opportunity to tap back into that 20-year-old I was and release all of the baggage from that time. I’m feeling more like myself than I ever have. This character feels like an exorcism of the lightest and darkest parts of myself.

NEVINS: An exorcism that ends with a Tony, hopefully

GROFF: Oh my god.


Grooming by Kumi Craig

Styling by Erica Cloud