Broadway Musical Time Machine: Looking Back at Merrily We Roll Along
Coming off a string of critical hits in the 1970s (Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd) composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and Director Harold Prince seemed like the unstoppable duo with boundless creative collateral going into the 1980s. Their next project together, however, did not ignite as previous productions had and the 1981 calamitous flop Merrily We Roll Along would bring their happy collaboration to an end for two decades. That is not to say that Merrily We Roll Along did not eventually prove to be an effective (if complicated) musical that would have an enduring shelf life and myriad theatre companies taking innovative approaches to the material to solve its alleged problems.
Merrily We Roll Along is loosely based on the 1934 hit George S. Kauffman and Moss Hart play by the same name. The story follows three estranged friends: a composer (Franklin), his lyricist partner (Charley) and their author friend (Mary) and the tragic implosion of their seemingly indestructible bond. The central conceit of the piece is that it starts out contemporary (for 1983), and then moves backward in time, scene-by-scene, unraveling the story of how their friendships fell apart, ending with its idealistic beginnings. It was both a heart wrenching piece about the fragility of interpersonal relationships, as well as a raw probing of the conditional nature of friendship.
For Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim wrote his most heartfelt score. Of particular poignancy was "Good Thing Going", an emotional summation of a friendship's slow disintegration. Sondheim does some of his finest lyric writing in this show, marrying droll wit and pithy storytelling in songs like "Franklin Shepard, Inc." and "Now You Know." Of course, he's not above a painfully visceral anti-torch song like "Not A Day Goes By" or a sentimental moment of optimistic naiveté with "Our Time". Even the recurring motif of the title song is a spritely (especially for Sondheim) ear-worm that has an upbeat, driving message that is ironically in contrast with the plot. It perfectly establishes the tonal balance of the piece: a story told both from the heart (looking forward) and with the brain (looking backward).
Sadly, audiences and critics didn't have much praise for Merrily We Roll Along when it opened on Broadway. Many were confused by the backward ticking plot, while others were disoriented by staging and design choices that didn't help decode the unusual plot structure. Still others (who did invest in the challenging structure) found the show to be a downer. Adding to the obstacles, a cast of all young actors wore t-shirts with their character names on them, the lettering not visible past the sixth row of the audience. Many critics felt that the youthful cast members were fine when they played their younger selves, but didn't have the life experience to knowingly convey the whirlpool of heartbreaks and hurts that is the starting point of the characters' journeys, an essential part of the show's first-half. After all, these are jaded people, bruised by the compromise of themselves and of each other. Ego, insecurity, and yes, love tear us apart with time and disappointment.
Merrily We Roll Along has had many productions over the years that have tried to rework the material in a way that tried to make it more coherent and accessible. This has resulted in no definitive script. In this author's opinion, the production that played The Kennedy Center in 2002 came closest to the perfect production. Directed seamlessly by Christopher Ashley, and starring Raúl Esparza, Miriam Shor, Michael Hayden, and Emily Skinner, this Merrily We Roll Along delighted audiences as part of a Sondheim celebration (six-show repertory). Time changes were carefully indicated by clear costume and set changes, not to mention a clever use of varying pianos to indicate different time periods in the central trio’s journey.
Will Merrily We Roll Along ever get a Broadway revival and thus inherit the mass admiration that it deserves, or will it remain that revered curiosity of only Sondheim fans who know what a special piece of musical theatre that it is? There is always talk of it being brought back to Broadway (Roundabout has made some suggestions/promises of a revival) and the 2013 production at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory was filmed and made available to watch in cinemas and digitally. Hopefully, this will help keep hope alive and Merrily We Roll Along will roll back to us in the near future.
Some interesting facts about Merrily We Roll Along:
- Merrily We Roll Along opened at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre November 16, 1981 where it ran for 52 previews and 16 performances.
- Among it’s youthful cast, future stars such as Jason Alexander (Jerome Robbin’s Broadway, TV’s Seinfeld), Liz Callaway (Baby, Miss Saigon) and Tonya Pinkins (Jelly’s Last Jam, Caroline, or Change) populated the production.
- Lonny Price, the original Charley Kringas, would go on to become one of theatre’s most sought-after directors. Price carved a niche for himself directing many staged concert versions of Broadway musicals, as well as full-scale productions. He also has appeared in Off-Broadway’s Falsettoland, Broadway’s Rags and A Class Act, and the films Dirty Dancing and The Muppets Take Manhattan.
- Sondheim wrote new songs for subsequent productions of Merrily We Roll Along, including “Growing Up”. The original’s final song “The Hills of Tomorrow” has been excised from most new productions, with “Our Time” concluding the show.