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What's New on the Rialto

Interview with Jim Walton
By Wayman Wong

Jonathan Groff and Jim Walton (2008)
Photo by Linda Lenzi/
In fall 1981, previews of Merrily We Roll Along started out with a song. In fact, a whole wonderful score of them by Stephen Sondheim. Plus, a book by George Furth and direction by Hal Prince. Inspired by the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it was the story of Frank, Charley and Mary: how they met, became fast friends, and fell apart. And it was told in reverse chronological order. So the show started in 1976 and rolled back to the trio's bright-eyed beginnings in 1957.

It featured a fresh-faced cast of newcomers, led by Jim Walton, Lonny Price and Ann Morrison, with the high hopes that it would be "Opening Doors" to their success. But baffled audiences didn't look forward to embracing a plot that went backwards in time. And neither did the critics. So Merrily didn't roll along. It closed after 44 previews and 16 performances.

November 16 marked the 42nd anniversary of Merrily's New York opening, and now there's been a reversal of fortune. Directed by Maria Friedman, the Broadway revival stars Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez, and critics have raved and proclaimed: "It's a hit! It's a hit!" It's also been breaking box office records at the Hudson Theatre. But how did it get to be here?

In Merrily, the chorus cautions: "Never look back. Never look back." Still, who better to reflect on its journey from flop to the hottest hit than Walton? He was originally cast to play Jerome, the attorney, but during previews he was asked on a Tuesday to take over the leading role of Frank. Walton, then 25, had four days to learn it, and performed it that Saturday. He was "thrilled" at the opportunity, but also felt "terrible" for James Weissenbach, a "terrific guy" he'd soon be replacing.

Walton, now 68, is the consummate pro, having amassed more than a dozen Broadway credits over the past four decades. He debuted in Perfectly Frank, a lesser Frank Loesser revue in 1980, and recently wrapped up a run in Come From Away in 2022. In between, there was 42nd Street, Sweeney Todd, The Music Man and many more. But our frank chat with Walton focuses on Merrily, "Like It Was" in 1981; the newest revival; and the various times he sang for Sondheim.

Wayman Wong:  Last November, you went to see Merrily We Roll Along at the New York Theatre Workshop. What did you think?

Jim Walton:  I went with some other original cast members, and it was terrific! I've seen Merrily a couple of times since I did it. It's always sort of a mixed blessing. It's hard to forget our production, and there have been changes made that are generally good. It was emotional to see it now that Hal and Steve are gone. I love the show. I really love the score. We had a great time, and all the performances were fantastic, especially Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez. Jonathan is a great Franklin Shepard. He's handsome, honest, and committed throughout. And we got to chat with him onstage after the show.

WW:  Jonathan told me you were "impossibly generous and kind. It was so encouraging to get the thumbs-up from Jim, especially since we were so early in the process. I have been a fan of his forever." But that's not the first time you two met.

JW:  Right. We remembered meeting [in 2008] at your wonderful Leading Men III concert at Birdland. And there's a photo.

WW:  It was a benefit for Broadway Cares, and you sang "Good Thing Going" and "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily, and Jonathan was on the bill, too. He says: "I remember marveling at Jim's kindness and gorgeous voice. The sound of him singing on the original cast album of Merrily is absolute perfection. It's been such an honor to play the role he so brilliantly created."

Frank is a tricky role. In the wrong hands, he could be such a sellout and jerk to his friends. Was Frank a tough part to play?

JW:  Yeah. It was hard to get a grip on Frank. You have to go from 43, a man in midlife crisis, to 20. I was so young that I couldn't identify with Frank. I still looked like this tall, skinny 22-year-old kid. That's why it was easier for me to play Act II; it got closer to who I was ... In the new revival, Jonathan's a very talented actor who makes you sympathize with Frank. He's created this likable guy who's lost and trying to find his way. And Jonathan's got a great voice. His "Growing Up" is so beautifully sung.

WW:  Speaking of "Growing Up," it wasn't in the original Merrily. It was added to the 1985 revival at the La Jolla Playhouse. But you sang it in Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, Lonny Price's delightful 2016 documentary about Merrily. Plus, you sang it at Sondheim: The Birthday Concert, a star-studded celebration in 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall.

JW:  "Growing Up" is a great song. Frank is trying to convince himself he has to let go of the past to find happiness. Lonny asked me to sing "Growing Up" for Steve's 80th birthday concert, and I was lucky I got to do it, but it was the most nerve-racking gig. I was playing and singing in front of the New York Philharmonic with Steve and the crème de la crème elite in the audience. If you hit a clunker, it's over. Happily, it went well. I told Lonny: "I hope Sondheim lives to his 90th, but I'm not doing that again!"

WW:  You also went with Lonny to the Broadway opening of Merrily in October. How was that?

JW:  The opening was thrilling. Maria Friedman's direction seemed to be clearer about what was going on. I think they pared it down, so you could concentrate on Frank, Charley, Mary, Joe and Gussie. That's smart that Frank is seduced by fame and Gussie. It's more believable. Who hasn't been seduced by something in life? I also was more appreciative of George Furth's book. People have criticized his book over the years, but I think George did a great job. There's a lot of funny moments in it. For example, you hear about Evelyn, Charley's wife, throughout the show, but you never meet her until the final scene. It's adorable that Charley is looking at her and thinking: "Who was that?" That's terrific playwriting. George was also kind and supportive. When Merrily was about to close, he told me: "Don't worry. You're going to do very well." That meant a lot to me.

WW:  Sondheim has said he always "adored" Merrily. In "Finishing the Hat," his 2010 collection of lyrics, he wrote that as troubled as the show was, "That month of fervent hysterical activity was the most fun I've ever had on a single show. It was what I had always expected the theater to be like." How does it feel to see a once legendary flop now become such a success?

JW:  It's fantastic. Our production had a lot of problems. I get it. But between the idea of the show and Sondheim's masterful score, it deserves to be seen. And I'm thrilled it's a hit. There's no jealousy. Merrily has done so much for me over the years. It put me out there. I'm very proud of Merrily. And I'd love to see it win the Tony for Best Musical Revival.

WW:  It's miraculous that Merrily has lived on, thanks to your original cast album.

JW:  That almost didn't happen. In fact, we were told there wouldn't be a cast album. RCA had a contract that said if a show didn't run a certain amount of time, they weren't required to record it. And when RCA told Hal they weren't going to do one, I heard Hal told RCA: "If you don't record Merrily, you'll never get another show of mine or Steve's." So RCA changed its mind.

WW:  In 2002, you did an amazing Merrily reunion concert as a benefit for Musical Theatre Works at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. You, Lonny, Ann Morrison, Jason Alexander, Liz Callaway, and so many "Old Friends" from the original cast got together again. Kathleen Marshall staged it, and Paul Gemignani conducted the orchestra again.

JW:  That was the best. The audience was in our corner from the beginning to the bows. Hal and Steve came up onstage, and it was a perfect reunion. It was unforgettable. I was then 47, and it felt phenomenal to play Frank again. I had had a lot of time to think about it: 21 years! I also had a stronger, cleaner singing voice. It was deeply meaningful to get a second chance.

WW:  You and Liz also did "Inside the Actors Studio" with Sondheim, hosted by James Lipton, in 1994. It was a wonderful TV show, which can be seen on YouTube. My favorite moment is when you and Liz sang "Move On" from Sunday in the Park with George and directed the last lyric to Sondheim: "Give us more to see." And then the audience gave him a standing ovation. Liz posted that video moment on her Facebook and added: "'If life were made of moments,' this might be my favorite."

JW:  Steve picked Liz and me for the Follies in Concert, and I think he chose us for the Actors Studio show, too. I loved singing with Liz. We also did a half-dozen songs that didn't even air. I sang "Not a Day Goes By," and Steve said they had me sing it in Merrily, in part, because I have "such a great voice." But when the show aired, that number was cut. Still, it meant the world to me that he appreciated my musicality. I was this quiet, weird Indiana boy who dreamt of being in the theater.

WW:  When it comes to musicality, you and your brother, Bob Walton, won a Bistro Award for your hilarious cabaret act. And the two of you have written musicals that have been performed across America and abroad. Tell us a little more about them.

JW:  Bob and I wrote the book and score for Double Trouble: A Musical Tour de Farce, and we starred in it at Goodspeed at Chester at Chester, Connecticut, and Stage One in Wichita, Kansas. We were two songwriting brothers who sang and danced, played 10 characters and even dressed in drag at times. It also ran for a year in Japan and is playing in Shanghai. And we've written Mid-Life! The Crisis Musical, which has played around the country, and its sequel, Mid-Life 2! What Did I Come in For?.

WW:  Finally, how did you find out about Sondheim's passing in 2021? And do you have a favorite Merrily tune?

JW:  I don't remember how I heard. But every day, I think of one of his songs, if not more. As for my favorite Merrily tune, everyone says "Not a Day Goes By," and it's beautiful. But for me, it's "Our Time." It's extremely poignant and touching. And I really felt it was my time. Nobody wrote like Steve. What an amazing imagination and such an understanding of music. And drama. Character. Wordplay. The most versatile composer-lyricist I can name. And how lucky was I to be part of his shows!

(Wong has written for Talkin' Broadway, Playbill, BroadwayWorld and the N.Y. Daily News, and is an award-winning playwright.)