A timeline of 'Merrily We Roll Along' on Broadway and beyond
Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical misfire returns decades later with the buzz of a hit and a cast led by Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez.
It started out like a flop – a big one. In late 1981, the new Broadway musical Merrily We Roll Along had really good things going for it. The show boasted music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a book by George Furth, and direction by Harold Prince, proven talents each and all. Yet the show opened and closed after 16 performances.
Over four-plus decades, multiple people, including Sondheim, have revised and restaged the show. The goal was to bring the messy script – drawn from a 1934 play and told in reverse chronology, no less – in line with the great score packed with gems like the yearning “Not a Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going.” The show’s topic remains the same, though: the ill-fated friendship between composer-turned-filmmaker Frank, writer Charley, and aspiring novelist-turned-critic Mary. The idealistic dreamers’ shared bond breaks under the weight of betrayals and Frank’s selling out.
In September, Merrily returns for its first Broadway revival, led by Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez in a production buoyed by – will you listen to that! – loud buzz and critical raves. How did the show go from a dud to a starry success? Our timeline — which, like Merrily, starts at the end and works back to the beginning — tells the tale.
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2023: Broadway – again
Radcliffe (as Charley), Jonathan Groff (as Frank), and Mendez (as Mary) lead the first Broadway revival of Merrily. British theatre star Maria Friedman, who first directed the production in 2012 in London, will direct the revival. The three leads arrive at the Hudson Theatre for an 18-week engagement fresh from an Off-Broadway run of the show that wrapped in January 2023.
2022: New York Theatre Workshop Off-Broadway production
NYTW hosted the first NYC run of Friedman’s staging, five years after its first American production in Boston. The status of the show as a cult favorite, the Radcliffe-Groff-Mendez star power trinity, and the limited run made it a red-hot ticket. Praise for the cast and the staging’s deeper intimacy made it a hit. “The story’s consideration of the fragility of friendships stands out,” noted New York Theatre Guide’s four-star Merrily We Roll Along review. Days after opening, the Broadway transfer was announced.
2019: Fiasco Theatre Off-Broadway production
Fiasco Theatre, a troupe known for its stripped-back stagings, presented Merrily with a cast of six actors and additional material from George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1934 play Merrily We Roll Along, which inspired the musical. New York Theatre Guide’s review cheekily described the show, which Sondheim initially composed at 50, as “the composer's midlife crisis musical.”
2012: Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Friedman, who played a sickly and besotted recluse in Sondheim’s Passion, first staged Merrily in November 2012 at London’s snug off-West End theatre. Significantly, she framed the musical as a memory play seen through Frank’s eyes and mined deeper emotions, including Mary’s feelings for Frank. Her production transferred to the West End, where it was filmed. This production is the bedrock for her subsequent New York stagings.
2012 Encores! Off-Broadway production
New York City Center put on a semi-staged limited concert run of Merrily in February 2012 as part of Encores!, its series of rare musical revivals. The production starred Colin Donnell as Frank, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charley, and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Mary.
James Lapine, who co-wrote Passion, Into the Woods, and Sunday in the Park with George with Sondheim, directed; he previously staged another production in San Diego.
2002: NYC reunion concert
The original Merrily Broadway cast reunited at LaGuardia High School in Manhattan for one night to perform a concert version of the show. Sondheim and Prince, who’d cut ties after the failure of Merrily, also attended. In 2003, they reunited to work on Bounce (ultimately titled Road Show), their first new show since the split.
2000: West End premiere, London
Nearly two decades after the Broadway debut, Michael Grandage directed Merrily’s 71-performance London premiere at the Donmar Warehouse in late 2000. Starring Julian Ovenden as Frank, Daniel Evans as Charley, and Samantha Spiro as Mary, the show won an Olivier for Best Musical.
1994: Off-Broadway premiere
Susan H. Schulman’s production of Merrily went up at the York Theatre Company. She streamlined the plot, jettisoning Frank’s opening address to high school students about sticking to their ideals (how ironic), and started at a fancy bash at his posh Bel-Air home.
Along with “Growing Up,” the production added “The Blob,” an ensemble number cut from the Broadway premiere. In what Variety called a “small but disastrous” change, “Good Thing Going,” originally sung by Frank, was given to his first wife, Beth. This version is now a go-to for revivals.
1985: La Jolla premiere
James Lapine cast John Rubinstein, Chip Zien, and Heather MacRae as the lead trio in his first staging of the show. Sondheim added “Growing Up” for this production, and it’s now one of the show’s most evocative songs. Sung by Gussie, Frank’s second wife, it’s about facing the choices you make in life, a theme that looms large.
1983: U.K. premiere
The first U.K. production of Merrily We Roll Along was a college production at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Its professional U.K. premiere took place a year later with Manchester’s Library Theatre Company in 1984.
1981: Broadway premiere
Following Company, for which they all won Tony Awards, Sondheim, Furth, and Prince adapted Moss Hart and George F. Kaufman’s 1934 play Merrily We Roll Along, which chronicled the unraveling of a three-way friendship in backward order.
Sondheim's score earned a Tony nod, but the book was deemed confusing. The staging also drew sharp critiques, as the young actors wore sweatshirts with their characters’ names on them. (Some of those young actors, though, are now stars, like Jason Alexander and Tonya Pinkins.)
After 42 previews and 16 performances, the show closed. But talk about an afterlife! It wasn’t the end of the road for Merrily — just the end of the beginning.
Broadway has a good thing coming, so see for yourself how far Merrily We Roll Along has, well, rolled along. Performances start September 19 at the Hudson Theatre.
Get Merrily We Roll Along tickets now.
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