Rolling ‘Merrily’ Along with Daina Griffith and Catherine Kolos

Front Porch Theatricals’ Production of the Sondheim Show Marks Leading Lady Griffith’s Musical Theater Directing Debut


The musical Merrily We Roll Along is having a moment no one could have foreseen when it first arrived on Broadway in 1981. 

Back then, it was a notorious flop, despite boasting a much-admired Stephen Sondheim score, with a book by George Furth and direction by Harold Prince.

Merrily had 44 previews and 16 performances, one lead was replaced, and it was gone from the limelight for a long, long time. In his New York Times review, critic Frank Rich wrote, “Mr. Sondheim has given this evening a half-dozen songs that are crushing and beautiful – that soar and linger and hurt. But the show that contains them is a shambles.”

However, in 2016, original cast member Lonny Price directed a documentary titled Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened about what went right and wrong with Merrily. Then Sondheim’s death in 2021 furthered nostalgia for all of his works.

It wasn’t just Price who couldn’t let go. Three-time Olivier Award-winner Maria Friedman retooled the musical and brought it to off-Broadway with the starry threesome of Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez and Daniel Radcliffe. All are now coming to Broadway with Merrily next month.

Daina Griffith makes her debut as a musical theater director this week. (image: Tony Moux)

Here in Pittsburgh, Daina Griffith and Front Porch Theatricals also were having Merrily thoughts.

The company already had the rights as its second show for summer 2023, and Griffith, about to make her debut as a musical theater director, was following the show’s NYC journey with trepidation, fearing that the rights would be pulled within the regions. That call never came, and the show will open on Friday at the New Hazlett Theater.

It was a text from Griffith to Front Porch co-producer Nancy Zionts that put the show in motion for its Pittsburgh run. Griffith was thinking back to the days when she and Point Park University pals Marcus Stevens and Scott Pearson would dream of a future, and cast themselves in Merrily roles. 

“So I was just having these very nostalgic moments of knowing so many people in the business for so long. And I just thought, why not? I’m just going to reach out to Nancy. And so I sent her a text, and all it said was, ‘Merrily We Roll Along?’

Zionts called Griffith immediately with a question of her own: Did the star of Front Porch shows such as Next to Normal and Grey Gardens want to be in the show, or did she want to make her directing debut?

The answer came quickly: Direct.

Zionts told Griffith she was on her way to meet with co-producer Bruce E.G. Smith, and that Merrily was on their short list of musicals to do in 2023. 

“So I kind of gave them my idea,” Griffith said, “and amazingly, they said, ‘Yes.’ ”


From left, Dan Mayhak, Catherine Kolos and Nathaniel Yost star in Front Porch Theatricals’ production of Merrily We Roll Along. (Dean Muro Photography)

Griffith was at Biddle’s Escape in Wilkinsburg, meeting with her choreographer, Alex Manalo, about the upcoming Front Porch production of Merrily We Roll Along, Griffith’s first time as a director of a musical.

Manalo, the busy theater artist who wrapped Guys & Dolls for Pittsburgh CLO on Sunday, got all teary.

“She was like, ‘You are part of my Merrily,’ ” Griffith recalls. “And I said, ‘And you are part of mine.’”

With that declaration, they had encapsulated all that is the journey of Merrily We Roll Along – a musical that was a flop four decades ago, but now is having a Pittsburgh and a Broadway moment. 

Merrily is the story of three friends reaching a point in their lives when they take stock of the dreamers they were at the start, and the choices that brought them to the present. Looking back are Franklin (Dan Mayhak), a composer-turned-film producer; Charley (Nathaniel Yost), a playwright, lyricist and Frank’s former writing partner; and Mary (Catherine Kolos), an aspiring novelist-turned-theater critic.

Like her director, Kolos is in territory we don’t usually associate with her career. To most people in the theater community, she is a behind-the-scenes presence as a stage manager, plus stints in management at Pittsburgh CLO and PICT Classic Theatre.

Her biggest onstage role to date was in 2011, as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray at Inter-Lakes Summer Theatre in New Hampshire. 

“I feel like my acting career is one of the best kept secrets in Pittsburgh,” Kolos said. “I do commercials and voiceover and I’ve been acting since I was 7 professionally, but most folks know me because I’ve been able to work consistently as a stage manager.”

It is performing, however, “that is a hat that I also wear, and that I love just as intensely.”

Like many people in the Front Porch Theatricals family of regionally nurtured talent, Kolos is a part of Griffith’s Merrily timeline, but not as a performer.

“Before Catherine auditioned, I had no idea about who Catherine was going to play or who Mary was going to be. I didn’t come in with a precast [of any role], and I was in Sundance when they were auditioning, so I was on a computer the whole time.”

Griffith was at the festival in Utah as a cast member of the short film Tender, but spent much of the time watching recorded auditions. She had never known fellow Point Park alum Kolos as a performer, but after seeing her audition, “I immediately texted [music director] Doug Levine and said, ‘I think I found our Mary,’” Griffith said.

In rehearsals, Kolos has been in an advantageous position to watch Griffith as she leads the large cast toward the opening on August 18.

“It’s extraordinary watching someone wear a different hat and thrive in it,” Kolos said. “She came in just so energetic and so prepared – it’s clearly a project that is close to her heart and you feel that in everything that she does. in every way we collaborate as a group, and I am so excited to see Pittsburgh embrace Daina Griffith as an incredible director.”

In her new role, Griffith has been carrying over lessons learned while working with directors throughout Pittsburgh.

From Martin Giles, her first director who also was “a full-time actor,” she observed how he respected the process employed by performers as individuals. On Day One of rehearsal, Griffith told her team, “I know everybody is different and I honor and respect however it works for your brain. And that kind of created a really safe environment for people to take risks.”

Ted Pappas, the former Pittsburgh Public Theater leader, director and choreographer, also has continued to be an inspiration and an advisor.

“The man, you know, he came in knowing what he wanted. And from my dance background, that kind of specific, ‘You need to stand down stage right, and move on this line,’ really spoke to my brain,” Griffith said. “As a former dancer, I liked that kind of rigidity and knowing that if I did this, then I’ll be able to create inside of those lines.”

Other directors she acknowledged as influences include Tracy Brigden, formerly of City Theatre, and Tony-nominee Sheryl Kaller, who directed the reading and production of Sean DanielsThe White Chip at City.

“[Kaller’s] sense of adventure, and willingness to play made that experience one of my favorites,” said Griffith.


Merrily’s Charley (Nathaniel Yost), Catherine Kolos (Mary) and Dan Mayhak (Franklin) for Front Porch. (Deana Muro Photography)

While Merrily We Roll Along has been on Griffith’s to-do list since college days, it was not a show Kolos knew well until her audition. “Not a Day Goes By” was a breakout hit even at the time, and has been covered by dozens of admirers. A version of the song by Bernadette Peters, sung live at the Royal Festival Hall London 15 years ago, has been viewed more than 920,000 times on YouTube.

“I really didn’t know the show until I started studying for the auditions and then got cast and now that I know it, I’m surprised that it’s so rarely produced. I think that maybe it was bogged down in concept in its creation, but now it’s such a beloved musical,” Kolos said.

Singing Sondheim is no easy task. He is a master of complexity in melody, lyrics and emotional storytelling, but the combination is a challenge most musical theater performers are more than willing to accept. 

That the musical is having this moment, more than 40 years after it was spurned by audiences and critics, is a testament not only to Sondheim, but to the resonant concept of a Merrily timeline, sparked with youthful enthusiasm and shared with friends, and the twists and turns that happen along the way.

It’s hard to think back now to the time just last year, when Griffith was holding her breath to see if Merrily We Roll Along’s back-to-Broadway journey would postpone her transition from leading lady to musical theater director. 

“Honestly, I thought they were going to pull the rights,” Griffith said. ”I kept waiting all year, like, something’s going to happen, and they’re going to say, ‘No.’ But we never got that call, so, lucky us … here we are!”


Front Porch Theatricals production of Merrily We Roll Along is at the New Hazlett Theater, North Side, runs August 18-27, 2023. https://www.frontporchpgh.com/

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2 replies

  1. Great article. So exciting to see people step into lesser-known roles! Congrats Front Porch, Ms. Griffith and Ms. Kolos!!


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