In 2018, Lindsay Mendez won the Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway revival of Carousel. In her speech, she was honest and inspiring in equal measures, saying from the stage at Radio City Music Hall: "When I moved to New York, I was told to change my last name from Mendez to Matthews or I wouldn’t work." She closed her speech by saying, “To all of you artists out there, just be your true self and the world will take note.”
Looking back on it now, Mendez saw that moment as a turning point for her professionally. "After Carousel, it was such a big year. It was really wonderful, and also, really intense and hard," she admits. "To be honest with you, having the opportunity to be nominated and win a Tony Award, I didn't expect that. And the fact that it happened, I kind of was like, 'Oh my gosh, that's a huge goal that I've hit. So now what do I do?'"
What did she do? The next new challenge for Mendez was auditioning for television shows. She eventually landed in the legal drama All Rise on CBS (alongside fellow Tony winner Ruthie Ann Miles). Mendez moved to Los Angeles and while she worked in Hollywood, she also became a mother. "I was filming until a week before I had her," Mendez recalls. "And I was able to do that in TV. Which in theatre, you know, I wouldn't have been able to work." And since becoming a mom, Mendez has been careful about what she chooses to work on, especially theatrically because of the time it requires to be away from her daughter, Lucille.
It would have to be something extraordinary, something she couldn't say no to, to bring Mendez back to the stage. That something has become the long-awaited Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. And that show comes with its own historical challenges. The last time Merrily was on Broadway, in 1981, it only ran for 16 performances. The revival of the musical begins at the Hudson Theatre September 19. It will be the first Broadway revival of the piece (it previously had a sold-out Off-Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop earlier this year).
Now, most people would immediately jump at the chance to star in a Sondheim revival. Mendez is not most people. When British director Maria Friedman reached out to Mendez to star in the musical alongside Jonathan Groff and Daniel Radcliffe, the actor admitted she was “terrified.” Not only would the show require Mendez to be back in New York and to take time away from her daughter, Merrily is, in Mendez’s words, “a really challenging story.”
Featuring a book by George Furth, Merrily We Roll Along follows three friends, from their optimistic early days as young, aspiring artists to their bitter middle-aged lives—but told backwards from the present to the past. When the show originally opened in 1981, it was critically panned. And it also led to an unfortunate moment of art imitating life; the musical is about a long friendship that's torn apart, and it led to a rift between Sondheim and his frequent collaborator Hal Prince, so much so that the pair didn't work together again until 2003.
Over the years, Merrily has gone from a bewildering piece to a cult classic, amassing a group of musical theatre fans who thinks it's an overlooked gem (including Lin-Manuel Miranda). The songs "Not a Day Goes By" and "Old Friends" have become musical theatre standards. In a sign of how beloved the musical now is, this Broadway revival of Merrily has already outsold the original run—it's been extended from its limited engagement end date of January 21, 2024, to March 24.
Mendez admits that coming into the project, she wasn’t familiar with Merrily, but while working on the show, she's come to appreciate its complexity. “It's an exploration of humanity. The message for us all is people grow and change. And how do you deal with that in your life?” says Mendez. “I don't think theatre is only to make people feel warm and fuzzy, but to make them think and challenge them. And this piece definitely does that.”
What also helped Mendez feel assured in taking this job was that Friedman and the show's lead producer, Sonia Friedman, has provided a child-friendly place—both Mendez and co-star Katie Rose Clarke have been able to bring their children to rehearsals. "They just have been really supportive about giving me maximum time with my daughter," says Mendez.
In Merrily, Mendez plays Mary. Unlike Franklin and Charley, who are musical theatre composers—Mary is a novelist. She is also the sole women in the friendship triumvirate and the peacemaker, always making sure every conflict is resolved and the friendship stays intact. Mendez admits that when she read the script, she noticed that compared to the male leads, her character “Mary definitely was the least written of the three of them,” she says. "I didn't really feel like she was flushed out." But Friedman managed to convince Mendez there was more here to play. “Having Maria Friedman direct it, she had such a strong point of view on Mary because she played it [in Leicester in 1992].”
The top of the show sees Mary as an alcoholic, one whose failures have eaten away at her: She did not become a successful writer like she had hoped. She's also been holding an unrequited love for Franklin for the past 20 years. To add insult to injury, the other characters make pejorative comments about Mary's weight.
"That's something we kind of struggled with," admits Mendez, comparing it to the public discourse that occurred during Carousel, which had its own share of characters saying things or acting in ways that are offensive to modern audiences. "Because it would never play now, does that mean we should erase it from time?" posits Mendez rhetorically. "It is a view that people had in that time that people who were overweight were awful and ugly and should be hidden away. It's uncomfortable, but it's also good that it makes you uncomfortable, because it means that you're not going to have that view." Then, she adds, "I'm the actress who has to receive it."
So how does she ensure that the comments don't affect her personally? Mendez answers honestly, comparing it to when she played Elphaba in Wicked. "I've had to play a lot of characters that people call ugly, or who don't fit in. And I feel like, if I can break people's hearts, then that means I'm creating empathy in the world and creating more thought, more understanding for all sorts of people."
Working with Friedman, Mendez has been able to deepen Mary's character. For instance, in the show's opening scene, Mary is acerbic and bitter. But in Mendez's hands, she is also funny and whip-smart—you are rooting for her to read everyone in that party for filth. She ends the scene breaking off her 20-year friendship with Franklin.
Mendez has her own thought process for what leads Mary to that breaking point. "She expects her friends, and Frank in particular, to hold her up and continue to push her and support her. And when they don't, and when they start to break apart, she doesn't know how to cope with that," Mendez explains. "This is a friendship that is enshrined in its heyday. It's not that anymore. And I think the dream dies. I think in that first scene, it's her finally understanding and accepting that this is over—and that she has to move on with her life and find something else."
The beauty, and also a reason that Merrily was originally a hard musical to swallow, was because of how uncomfortably true to life it is. Some friendships don't last forever. Sometimes people fail to do the right thing, and they have to live with the consequences. And sometimes, our best days have already passed, and we can't get them back. Now 40 years old, it's a feeling that Mendez relates to deeply.
“The older you get, sometimes your glory days are behind you,” explains Mendez. “So many people would come up to me after the show and say, ‘This reminded me of when I was first starting out here, and how much I wish I could feel that way again, how much I wish I could feel hope again’ …I think a lot of people left this feeling really contemplative about their own lives and how they've led them. Maybe it's torturous for people. For me, it's sweet and wonderful to say, ‘I've lived a life, and I have hopefully a lot more life to live ahead of me.’"
Mendez's optimistic viewpoint is of a piece with this version of Merrily, which Friedman has positioned as a memory play from the point of view of Franklin, who is looking back on the past 20 years of his life. This allows for the show to have a moment of redemption for its characters. “My hope for Mary and my dream is that she picks herself up and moves on with her life," says Mendez. "And maybe at the end of that party, after Mary's walked out, maybe Frank goes back and calls them and says, 'Hey, I fucked up, let's get this back.'"
Another reason that, perhaps, Merrily has finally resonated with audiences and critics this time around is in the age of the actors playing these characters. Lonny Price, Jim Walton, and Ann Morrison were in their 20s and Broadway newcomers when they played the trio in the original Merrily. By contrast, Mendez, Groff, and Radcliffe are in their 30s and 40s, the same age as the characters in the first scene of the musical—and they are all entertainment veterans, with the scars and insights to show for it. They're able to bring a sense of ennui and introspection to the musical that feels lived-in and authentic.
"We make each other die laughing every day," enthuses Mendez of her co-stars. "We all know how unique it is to have the experience of doing a show that we're really proud to be in, doing work that we're really proud of, and getting to be on stage with people of that caliber. The three of us don't always do theatre at this point anymore. So we just know that this is a fleeting moment. And we're going to enjoy every second of it. We can't wait to get started again."