MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG: A [Backwards] History of Old Friends

Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along is back on Broadway! Hear the story of how this beloved musical went from flop to fan favorite.

By: Nov. 04, 2023
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MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG: A [Backwards] History of Old Friends
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"How did you get to be here? What was the moment?"

In spite of its unfortunate 1981 debut, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along went to achieve cult status among musical theatre fans, with a small but vocal community of supporters championing the show to its current, rightful place- back on Broadway as a Sondheim favorite.

Since its beginnings, Merrily has received major productions throughout the United States, as well as the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and Canada, including the one currently running on Broadway. It has been nominated for over two dozen major awards and won twelve including the Olivier Award for Best Musical. 

Though the current revival is the first time Merrily the musical has made its way back to Broadway, its songs have gone on to lives of their own, returning in the Sondheim retrospectives Putting It Together and Sondheim on Sondheim and the Hal PrinceMerrily We Roll Along retrospective, Prince of Broadway.

Songs from Merrily have also been seen on the big and small screens, with the composer himself making a cameo as the Broadway producer in the performance of "Opening Doors" in the HBO documentary, Six By Sondheim. The title song can also be heard briefly in Greta Gerwig's Academy Award-nominated film, Lady Bird.

There have been eleven recordings made of its score and a number of its songs have gone on to become some of Sondheim's most covered with Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Liza Minnelli, Frank Sinatra, Carly Simon, Julie Wilson, Betty Buckley, KT Sullivan, Michael Feinstein, Liz Callaway, Ann Hampton Callaway, Christiane Noll, Petula Clark, Patti LuPone, John Barrowman, Barbara Cook, Tonya Pinkins, Judy Collins, Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley, Chip Zien, Kate Rockwell, Eleri Ward, Melissa Errico, Alexis Michelle, and more all turning in covers.

Though the show marked the end of the Stephen Sondheim/Harold Prince partnership, the two remained friends and eventually teamed up one last time for Bounce in 2003. The original Broadway cast reunited to stage a concert version of the show for one night on September 30, 2002, with both Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince in attendance. Prince, still guilt-ridden from the failure of the original Broadway production, nearly didn't attend and almost missed its rapturous reception which he called "a celebration."

Merrily We Roll Along

At its essence, Merrily We Roll Along has always been a show about growing up and the ways in which time, influence, and ambition shape our fate. But the story of Merrily's life and creation remains eerily prescient, mirroring the youthful ideals and very grown up pitfalls of its subject matter. 

A musical culled from obscure origins, forged in effervescent enthusiasm, shaped by time, marked by miserable failure and surprising success. A show brought forth by two old friends and the good thing they had going, going...gone- only to be revived and revitalized by a pal for her pal. Merrily's story onstage and off remains a potent ode to the importance of friendship, no matter how long or short-lived. 

From a flop to a phenom, from then to now, Merrily We Roll Along has earned its place as the best worst thing that ever could have happened.

First Transition: Merrily We Roll Along (Film, Release Date Unknown)

On August 29, 2019, Blumhouse Productions acquired the rights to make a Merrily We Roll Along film, with Richard Linklater directing. In keeping with the decades-spanning nature of the material, Linklater opted to film the project in a similar style to his film, Boyhood, which was shot over a period of 12 years. Production on Merrily is planned to resume eery couple of years to reflect the characters aging over two decades. 

Originally announced to play the three leading roles were real-life besties Tony Award-winner Ben Platt and Golden Globe-nominee Beanie Feldstein. Blake Jenner exited the film in late 2019 (after the filming of the "Our Time" sequence) following allegations of domestic abuse made by his ex-wife Melissa Benoist. The sequence was later reshot with Jenner'sMerrily We Roll Along replacement, Paul Mescal

The film is based on the latest version of George Furth's book, which was adapted by Linklater into the film's screenplay.

Though filming has presently stalled due to ongoing labor strikes in Hollywood, earlier this year, Platt revealed that filming of the second sequence was planned for 2023, and teased their work so far as, "wonderful."

"Sondheim is the ultimate god of the theater, so to get the opportunity to do a beautiful short film of Sondheim is wonderful, especially with Beanie who is a dear friend and Paul who is just one of our greatest screen talents," Platt stated in the interview. "I'm hoping we can make it to the finish line."

Linklater, who is currently 62, will be in his early eighties when the film comes out. It is estimated that it will be released in the early 2040s. While speaking with IndieWire, the director shared a message to fans who are worried about the release date.

"What I do feel is when older people, pushing 80 perhaps, come up and say, 'Oh, I hope I'm around when it comes out,'" the director stated. "Someone on that age scale, you might look ... I can see how the actuarial tables say you may or may not be around to experience the final movie. But frankly, I'm on that same table, so I tell them, 'Don't count yourself out.' We're all getting there."

Linklater also discussed how the film's process compares to his recent film Boyhood, which similarly filmed once a year from 2002 to 2013.

"They're very different, just using the same longitudinal storytelling technique. They're just such different stories. But also, Boyhood was every year like a time-lapse, but Merrily is like nine times shooting in 20 years, so there's a two-year gap between each time shoot. Sometimes, two years in a row, but the schedule is all over the map."

Second Transition - Merrily We Roll Along (Broadway Revival, 2023)

In 1992, Maria Friedman was cast as Mary Flynn in Merrily We Roll Along at the Haymarket Theater in Leicester, in a production created around rewrites from Sondheim and George Furth as they continued to grapple with the material. 

Merrily We Roll Along

“I was convinced the entire show was about me,” Friedman told The New York Times, “Steve said to me, ‘I’m really, really worried for you. This comes too easily to you.’ It was after the first scene, where she screams and shouts and goes flying around.”

It was during this time that Friedman also realized the true focus of the piece, one that would come to inform her now-acclaimed take on the show: “This is about Frank! What a very big shock!" The revised script created during this production is the one Friedman has used for her own productions. 

After going on to star in another Sondheim show, Passion, Maria and Steve cultivated a close friendship, one that saw her naming Steve as the godfather to her two children. 

Friedman's first try at staging Merrily was a student production at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. When her sister, famed British producer Sonia Friedman and David Babani, the artistic director of musical incubator, The Menier Chocolate Factory, sneaked in to watch it, the two urged her to do a professional version based on what they saw.

Merrily We Roll Along

To create her Merrily, Friedman refocused the show as the story of Franklin Shepard, streamlining the persistent issue of balance between the narratives of the three main characters. In her university production, Friedman also discovered the issues inherent to staging the piece as a vehicle for young actors. “It’s like they’re playing dress up,” she told The New York Times. There have been no alterations to the book or lyrics with Friedman opting instead to stage the work as a self-aware memory play, digging for truth in each line and lyric, eschewing cynicism and sentimental melodrama entirely. 

“The thing about Steve is he’s always the smartest person in the room wherever you are,” she said. “So as a director, you can either go into battle with that cleverness. Or you know it’s there, you understand it, you respect it, and then as the actor or the director, you put in the humanity, and the complexity in the humanity, beneath the cleverness.”

Friedman's production went on to be staged at Menier in 2012 where it received a rapturous reception, and quickly moved on to London's West End where it earned seven Olivier Award nominations, including Best Musical Revival. The revival won the Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical in the 2012 Critics' Circle Theatre Awards, and was filmed and broadcast to select cinemas in 2013.

Sondheim also approved. Friedman told The New York Times, “He couldn’t breathe. I mean, he always cried a lot. But he couldn’t move.” Sondheim would go on to say that this Merrily was “the best I’ve seen,” and “the classic ideal of the sum being greater than the parts.”

Merrily We Roll Along

The team transferred the production to the states, enjoying successful run in Boston with Broadway in their crosshairs. But when Fiasco Theater staged the musical in 2019 for Roundabout Theatre Company, they decided to hold off on a New York run. 

When Stephen Sondheim passed away in November 2021 at the age of 91, Friedman knew it was time to bring Merrily back to New York.

“I was only doing it for him,” she said, “as a love letter for him, to bring it to his city, where it’s failed so badly. And I wanted him to actually get that accolade — not of me discovering it, but me showing what he’d written.”

In 2022, an off-Broadway revival ran at New York Theatre Workshop starring Jonathan Groff as Franklin, Daniel Radcliffe as Charley, and Lindsay Mendez as Mary. In September 2023, the production transferred to Broadway for a limited engagement at the Hudson Theatre, with Groff, Radcliffe and Mendez, as well as Krystal Joy Brown (Gussie), Katie Rose Clarke (Beth) and Reg Rogers (Joe) reprising their roles.

Merrily We Roll Along

It is the first time that Merrily We Roll Along has run on Broadway since its original 1981 production. Previews began on September 19, 2023 and the show opened on October 10. During its first week of previews, the show broke the house record at the Hudson Theatre and played to sold out audiences, grossing over $1.3 million.

At long's a hit. 

Third Transition: The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (Documentary, 2016)

In 2016, original cast member Lonny Price directed, The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, a film documenting the making of the original Broadway production of Merrily We Roll Along, as well as the impact of the experience on the lives and careers of its young cast.

In addition to first person narratives around the notorious original production, the film also includes archival audio and video footage chronicling the show's creation and audition process. To acquire the footage, Lonny Price hired a professional researcher of archival film who traced some of the materials, previously believed to have been destroyed, to the ABC Corporation. The conglomerate, having had a stake in the Merrily We Roll Alongoriginal Broadway production, had axed the footage from a news program due to a conflict of interest. After some searching, the researcher was able to recover 37 boxes of film from a warehouse in Connecticut.  

The film includes appearances by Harold Prince, Stephen SondheimJason Alexander, Donna Marie Asbury, James Bonkovsky, David CadyLiz CallawayTerry FinnPaul GemignaniAdam Guettel, Steven JacobAnn MorrisonMandy PatinkinTonya Pinkins, Abigail Pogrebin, Lonny Price, Daisy PrinceForest D. RayFrank Rich, Clark Sayre, David Shine, Jim Walton, James Weissenbach, and Maryrose Wood.

The film premiered at the New York Film Festival in October 2016 and was released theatrically on November 18, 2016.

Michael Schulman of The New Yorker called it a “moving documentary” and wrote: “It’s hard now to imagine the audience members who stormed out, exasperated, during the original run, but seeing the cast members reflect on the ordeal shows how devastating it was to realize they were on a sinking ship—and that those 'gods' Sondheim and Prince were mortal after all.” 

Critical reception of the film was overwhelmingly positive. The film's score on Rotten Tomatoes is 95% with 21 reviews.

Despite their disappointment, the original Broadway cast of Merrily We Roll Along expressed overwhelming sentiments that the overall experience of creating the production had been a joyful and formative one. 

Fourth Transition: Post-Broadway (1983- 2012)

Following its short-lived Broadway premiere, Merrily became a sort of pet project for theatre artists, receiving numerous high-profile productions that attempted to solve itsMerrily We Roll Along issues,  with the blessing of George Furth and Stephen Sondheim.

As part of these experiments Sondheim contributed new songs to several of the show's incarnations, most notably "Growing Up", which was added to a 1985 production from James Lapine at La Jolla Playhouse starring John Rubinstein as Frank, Chip Zien as Charley, Marin Mazzie as Beth, and Heather MacRae as Mary.

The show's opening underwent numerous changes over the years. An epilogue opening song, "The Hills of Tomorrow," in which a middle-aged Franklin Shepard delivers the keynote address at a graduation, has been routinely cut. In many productions, including the one currently running on Broadway, a song titled "Rich and Happy", has been cut in favor of a song called, "That Frank", sung by Franklin's sycophantic Hollywood pals. "The Blob (Parts 1 & 2)" lampooning New York City's cultural glitterati has also been added to the second act.

Changes to the show's book have also been undertaken in service of streamlining the plot and filling out the inner lives of characters, namely Franklin's first wife, Beth, whose character and backstory have been more fully fleshed out over the years.

The show has returned to New York on a number of occasions following its notorious Broadway run. Director Susan H. Schulman presented a "streamlined" off-Broadway revival at the York Theatre in St. Peter's Church in 1994. and ran for 54 performances.

Merrily We Roll Along

In 2012, Encores! staged concert at New York City Center. This production was directed by James Lapine and featured Colin Donnell as Frank, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Mary, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charley, Elizabeth Stanley as Gussie, and Betsy Wolfe as Beth. This version incorporated parts of revisions done for the 1985 La Jolla Playhouse production and 1990 and 1994 productions. Many members of the original production were invited to attend and joined the Encores! cast and Sondheim on stage following the performance to sing "Old Friends."

In 2019, Roundabout Theatre Company's Fiasco Theatre staged another off-Broadway revival, directed by Noah Brody with choreography by Lorin Latarro.

An Arena Stage production, directed by Douglas C. Wager and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, opened on January 30, 1990, at Washington, D.C.'s Kreeger Theater, The cast included Victor GarberDavid GarrisonBecky Ann Baker and, as in San Diego, Marin Mazzie as Beth. In his review of the production, Frank Rich wrote, "Many of the major flaws of the 1981 Merrily, starting with its notorious gymnasium setting, have long since been jettisoned or rectified in intervening versions produced in La Jolla, Calif., and in Seattle." He called the score "exceptional."

Merrily We Roll Along

The show's UK life includes a 1983 production at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and subsequent stagings at Library Theatre Company and a 1992 production at Haymarket Theatre. The show finally received its West End premiere at London's Donmar Warehouse in December 2000 in a production directed by Michael Grandage, running for 71 performances following eight previews. The cast was led by Julian Ovenden as Frank, Samantha Spiro as Mary and Daniel Evans as Charley. Spiro and Evans received Olivier Awards for their performances, and the production received the Olivier for Best Musical. 

In 2012, John Doyle, a Tony Award-winner for his acclaimed actor-musician stagings of Sweeney Todd and Company on Broadway, staged the show in a similar fashion at The Cincinnati Playhouse

Fifth Transition: Merrily We Roll Along (Musical,1981)

Merrily We Roll Along

The musicalization of Merrily We Roll Along began with a suggestion from Harold Prince's wife, Judy Prince. Following a string of successes dealing in darker, more mature themes, Mrs. Prince approached the famed director with the idea that his next show should be about young people. A father of two, Hal ruminated on the notion, quickly recalling a 1934 play by Kaufman and Hart titled, Merrily We Roll Along. Hal quickly put in a call to Stephen Sondheim, who jumped on board to create the score. Sondheim and Prince's Company collaborator, George Furth, soon signed on to write the book. 

Some alterations were made to suit a modern audience, with the story now taking place between 1955 and 1980. The trio of friends at the show's center were given new names and trades; playwright Richard Niles was now composer Franklin Shepard, Jonathan Crale became lyricist and playwright Charlie Kringas, and novelist Julia Glenn became magazine writer and author, Mary Flynn. 

Prince and Sondheim had conceived of the show as a vehicle for young performers and stacked the cast with teenagers and young adults, who played their characters in reverse, from middle age to their youth. Prince later said of working with the mostly green company, "The beginnings of [the cast's] artistry, the roughness of their craft, their inexperience. I was charmed as hell by that."

Merrily We Roll Along

After sifting through thousands of young performers at open calls, the creative team found their cast, including James Weissenbach as Franklin Shepard, Lonny Price as Charley Kringas, Ann Morrison as Mary Flynn, Terry Finn as Gussie, Jason Alexander as Joe, Sally Klein as Beth, Geoffrey Horne as Franklin Shepard age 43, David Loud as Ted, Hal's daughter, Daisy Prince as Meg, Liz Callaway as Nightclub Waitress, Tonya Pinkins as Gwen, Abby Pogrebin as Evelyn, and Giancarlo Esposito as valedictorian).

Merrily We Roll AlongFor the physical production, Prince first suggested a total absence of scenery with only racks of clothes which the actors would utilize for their transformation through time. Prince said of the concept, "These kids would come in looking like little kids, and they would pretend to be their parents as they see them." Prince later said he "lacked the courage" to follow through with the notion due to his sense that Broadway audiences paying Broadway prices would not accept such a sparse production. The team later settled on a group of movable bleachers lined with lockers and a screen on which projections were shown "to set the mood and period."

To match the backwards structure of the show, Sondheim constructed a score ranging from 1970s bossa nova to 1950s musical theatre pastiche, with musical themes repeating throughout to, in Sondheim's words, represent "undercurrents of memory" and reveal the larger significance of key moments as the story unfolds. Because of the strictures Sondheim applied to his writing, he named Merrily's score as one of the most difficult of his career to create, second only to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. According to Sondheim, the score of Merrily contains his most emotionally autobiographical song, an eleven o'clock number titled, "Opening Doors". The number follows the 20-something trio of friends over a period of two years as they try to make their way in the worlds of musical theatre and publishing. Sondheim told composer Adam Guettel that the song outlined the beginnings of the careers of Sondheim, Guettel's mother, Mary Rodgers, and Hal Prince

Merrily We Roll Along

He said, "Your mother was hustling for jobs just the way I was, and Hal already was a successful producer, but we couldn't wait. It's the whole thing of seeing every show and talking about every show and then writing and knocking on producers doors. All that was really fun and really frenetic."

The show did not get a traditional out-of-town tryout due to budgetary restrictions, instead putting on over 40 "tryout performances" which were actually Broadway previews. Tryouts began on October 8, 1981. Expectations were high for the next Prince-Sondheim collaboration after what felt like an unstoppable hit parade throughout the 70s, but the poor reception was nearly instantaneous, with audiences walking out in droves from the show's first preview. As early audience and critical reception spread throughout the rialto, the Merrily's reputation as a flop was established long before opening night. 

Merrily We Roll AlongNumerous issues plagued the show and the creative team spent the next month in a frenzied state trying to right the ship. In his book, Finishing the Hat, Sondheim wrote of Merrily's issues, which he believed stemmed from framing the piece as a vehicle for young actors in the first place:

"The last 20 minutes of the show, when the cast reverted to their true ages, was undeniably touching, but the rest of the evening had an amateur feeling- which ironically had been what we wanted. If the show had played in an Off-Broadway house at Off-Broadway prices. It would have stood a better chance of fulfilling our intentions. As it was at Broadway's Alvin Theater and at Broadway prices, it turned the audiences off. The theatergoers who didn't leave at intermission did a lot of squirming and with reason: they felt cheated. There were severe problems with the sets and costumes as well, the former being cluttered and charmless, the latter so confusing that Hal threw them all out at dress rehearsal and replaced them with t-shirts lettered with a description of each wearer's relationship to Frank...I rather liked it. The paying audience did not."

Merrily We Roll Along

In spite of the production's very public growing pains under the watchful eye of what the show would later term, "The Blob" ("show buffs, rival producers, gossip columnists, and the like," according to Steve) the composer recalled that "painful month" of "fervent hysterical activity" as the most fun he'd ever had on a single show.

It was during this process that the show's original Franklin Shepard, James Weissenbach, was replaced by Jim Walton and original choreographer Ron Field was replaced with Larry Fuller. The Broadway opening was postponed twice as the creative team scrambled to fix the show. By opening night, the production team "thought we'd fixed the show," according to Sondheim, but in retrospect, they had only "bettered it, not fixed it," and the critical response was "merciless."

In his New York Times review, Frank Rich wrote, "As we all should probably have learned by now, to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one's heart broken at regular intervals" and called the show "a shambles". Rich later said that the piece had been "painful" to write of two artists he considered heroes. 

Clive Barnes wrote, "Whatever you may have heard about it—go and see it for yourselves. It is far too good a musical to be judged by those twin kangaroo courts of word of mouth and critical consensus."

Merrily We Roll Along

The Broadway production opened on November 16, 1981, at the Alvin Theatre. Though it received mostly negative reviews, owed to a difficult to follow story and what was perceived as dour subject matter, Sondheim's score was widely praised. Hal Prince's production of Merrily We Roll Along ultimately ran on Broadway for 16 performances and 44 previews.

The fallout from Merrily was swift and jarring, ending what has long been considered the greatest theatrical pairing in modern history, Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim. After 10 years of of hits, numerous awards, and decades of friendship, the experience strained the relationship between the two artists who mutually agreed to end their partnership as a result. 

The failure of the production also nearly derailed Sondheim entirely. Dismayed by the theatrical community's ("a myth if there ever was one," according to Steve) gleeful reaction to the the end of Prince and Sondheim's winning streak, the composer, a known game and puzzle enthusiast, considering leaving show business altogether to pursue a career in video games.

Merrily We Roll Along

In his memoir, Sense of Occasion, Prince wrote, "I've had many failures. But this one was the most painful. It was heartbreaking. I loved all the kids we had cast and I knew they were having the time of their lives. All during rehearsals, I had been convinced that it was great. I set them up as sitting ducks. And to this day. I feel personally responsible for letting them down. Surely the book was too complicated, surely the original play on which it was based had not been a success, but I bear the burden of most of its failure because I couldn't see it. In falling love with the cast, you lose your objectivity."

The show was nominated for the 1982 Tony Award for Best Score, and earned two Drama Desk nominations, winning one for Stephen Sondheim's lyrics. 

Sixth Transition: Merrily We Roll Along (Broadway, 1934)

Merrily We Roll AlongThough Merrily made a splash as a musical, the piece originally debuted on Broadway in 1934 as a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. An innovative structure for its time, the play presented its story in reverse order with the central character, a man who has lost the idealistic values of his youth, regressing from a mournful adult to a young man whose future is filled with promise.

The concept began its life as Moss Hart made a journey from Hollywood to New York in 1931. Inspired by the breadth of challenges of life in the early 20th century spanning from the First World War to the Great Depression, Hart endeavored to write a play about an American family over the course of 30 years. When Noël Coward debuted his play Cavalcade, a British take on the same concept, Hart shelved the idea. It reemerged few years later, when he turned to collaborator George S. Kaufman, with the newly evolved idea: a story backward about an idealistic but ambitious playwright and his difficulties.

The play centers on Richard Niles, a pretentious 40-year-old playwright whose forgettable but commercial comedies have made him a success, but left him with an empty, lovelessMerrily We Roll Along existence. Richard's life then unfolds in reverse over nine scenes spanning from 1934 to 1916, with each revealing how he attained success by gradually compromising his integrity and principles. In Richard's quest for success, he betrays and alienates the people most important to him, including his dearest friends, novelist, Julia Glenn, painter, Jonathan Crale, and his wife, glamorous actress Althea Royce.

The Broadway production, directed by Kaufman, opened on September 29, 1934, at the intimate Music Box Theatre. The show boasted a phenomenally large cast, with anywhere from 55- 92 actors employed, according to varying reports. Of the cast size Time wrote, "...superbly acted by the biggest cast seen in a legitimate Broadway production this season, Merrily We Roll Along is an amusing and affecting study..."

Merrily We Roll Along

The leading cast included Kenneth MacKenna as Richard NilesWalter Abel as Jonathan Crale, Jessie Royce Landis as Althea Royce, and Mary Philips as Julia Glenn, a character fashioned after iconic humorist, Dorothy Parker. A supporting character based on George Gershwin is said to also be depicted in the play.

The Broadway production, weighed down by its running costs, only ran for 155 performances before embarking on a short tour. The play has not been seen on Broadway since. 

"It started out like a song..."

1) Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy, 2023
2) Photo Credit: Martha Swope, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1981
3) Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy, 2023
First Transition
Photo Credit: Jennifer Broski, 2019
Second Transition
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy, 2023
Third Transition
Image Credit: Atlas Media Corp., 2016
Fourth Transition
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2019
Fifth Transition:
Photo Credit: Martha Swope, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1981
Sixth Transition:
Photo Credit: Vandamm, 1934

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