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Merrily We Roll Along is a musical with a book by George Furth and lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim. It is based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Furth and Sondheim retained the basic structure and overall theme of the play but updated it to encompass the period from 1957 to 1976. The story revolves around Franklin Shepard who, having once been a one-time composer of Broadway musicals, is now a highly successful but cynical and jaded producer of Hollywood flicks who has lost his friends. Like the play, the musical moves backwards in time, showing all the most important moments in Frank's life in frames, and how they shaped the man that Frank is today. Like Sweeney Todd, the show utilizes a chorus that sings reprises of the title song to transition the scenes.

The musical closed on Broadwaymarker after only 16 performances in 1981 and marked the end of the Harold Prince-Sondheim collaborations until Bounce in 2003.

Background and original production

Prince's wife, Judy, had been "nagging" him to do a musical about teenagers, when he recalled the play Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim said that since the play was about friendships, he wrote the songs to be interconnected. The original choreographer, Ron Field, wanted to work with Prince. The decision was made to cast teenagers, and to have tryouts in New York rather than out-of-town. The tryouts, beginning on October 8, 1981, had a poor reception, with audiences walking out. On October 21, the New York Times reported that the leading man had been replaced by Jim Walton and the Broadway opening had been postponed. Field was replaced with choreographer Larry Fuller.

After an unusual 52 previews, the Broadway production, directed by Prince and choreographed by Fuller, opened on November 16, 1981 at the Alvin Theatremarker. The show opened to mostly negative reviews. While the score was widely praised, critics and audiences alike felt that the book was problematic and the themes left a sour taste in their mouths. Hampered by the several critical reviews published prior to its official opening, as well as more negative ones published afterwards, it ran for only 16 performances. In his New York Times review on November 17, 1981, Frank Rich said of the production, "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." 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."

The cast included Walton as Franklin Shepard, Lonny Price as Charley, Ann Morrison as Mary, Terry Finn as Gussie,Jason Alexander as Joe, Sally Klein as Beth and Liz Callaway, Tonya Pinkins and Giancarlo Esposito in supporting roles. Rosie O'Donnell auditioned; she was 18 years old.

Subsequent production history

Throughout the years, with Furth and Sondheim's blessing, the musical has been staged with numerous changes, most notable of which is presenting its scenes in chronological order rather than in reverse. Sondheim has contributed new songs to several of the show's incarnations.

A production directed by James Lapine opened on June 16, 1985 at San Diegomarker's La Jolla Playhousemarker, where it ran for 24 performances. The cast included John Rubinstein, Chip Zien, and Marin Mazzie. An Arena Stagemarker production, directed by Douglas C. Wager, opened on January 30, 1990 at Washington, D.C.marker's Kreeger Theater, where it ran slightly more than two months. The cast included Victor Garber,David Garrison, and Becky Ann Baker. In his review of the Arena Stage production, Rich noted that "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."

A revised British production, directed by Paul Kerryson, with orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick and musical direction by Julian Kelly, opened on April 14, 1992 at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicestermarker, where it ran for three weeks. The cast included Michael Cantwell, Maria Friedman, and Evan Pappas, along with Jacqueline Dankworth, Louise Gold, and, Gareth Snook. A cast recording was released on a single CD in the UK in 1994 and, with extended cuts and dialogue, as a double-CD set in the US in 1997.

An off-Broadway revival, directed by Susan H. Schulman, opened on May 26, 1994 at the York Theatre in St. Peter's Church, where it ran for 54 performances. The cast included Malcolm Gets and Michele Pawk. A cast recording was released by Varèse Sarabande.

During their 1997-1998 season, SpeakEasy Stage Company performed the show the Boston Center for the Arts.

After eight previews, the West Endmarker premiere, directed by Michael Grandage, opened on December 11, 2000 at the Donmar Warehousemarker, where it ran for 71 performances. The cast included Mary Stockley. The production won Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Musical, Best Actor, and Best Actress.

In 2002, a reunion concert was staged at the Laguardia Concert Hall at Lincoln Centermarker as a benefit for Musical Theatre Works, of which Lonny Price was Artistic Director. All but two of the original cast members recreated their roles, with Jason Alexander acting additionally as Master of Ceremonies. Tony-winning choreographer Kathleen Marshall directed. George Furth was not in attendance (and did not allow any of his dialogue to be spoken), but Prince and Sondheim were on hand. Shortly after, they began work together on Bounce, their first collaboration since Merrily. A limited engagement of fourteen performances opened on July 12, 2002 at the Eisenhower Theater in the Kennedy Centermarker. The cast included Miriam Shor, Raúl Esparza, and Emily Skinner. Theatre Works [393554] opened a production of the musical in Mountain View, Californiamarker on April 4, 2007.

The Derby Playhousemarker production ran from 19 April to 19 May 2007, starring Glyn Kerslake, Glenn Carter and Eliza Lumley in the lead roles.

The Signature Theatremarker (Arlington, Virginia) production, directed by Eric Schaeffer, opened on September 4, 2007 and ran through October 14, 2007.

John Doyle has directed a production running at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury, Berkshire, from January 16, 2008 through March 8, 2008. It features Sam Kenyon (Franklin), Rebecca Jackson (Gussie), Elizabeth Marsh (Mary) and Thomas Padden (Charlie). (This is Doyle's last production for the theatre.)

A concert production of the show was held in Southampton New York in March 2008 directed by Michael Disher, followed later by a fully-staged production in September 2008.

Plans for a revival, put on by the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, was announced in May 2008. The revival aims for Broadway in 2009/10.


Act I

Franklin Shepard is a rich, famous and influential songwriter and film producer. But how did he get to be where he is today? ("MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG") The years begin to roll back.

First stop is Frank's swanky Bel Air pad in 1976, after the premiere of his latest movie. A party is in full swing. Frank's "friends", the hangers-on, people who make things happen in show business and the movers and shapers are all there, and lavish praise on him ("THAT FRANK"). His old friend and theatre critic, Mary, who is now an alchoholic, is also at the party. She is disgusted by the superficiality of the people Frank has chosen to associate with and by his abandonment of music - the one thing he was truly good at - for the world of commercial film producing. Frank admits that his new film is just a formula picture, but just wait for the next film! "I gave up waiting", she says. She gets progressively more and more drunk and, after insulting everyone, is ordered to leave. Their friendship is over.

However, Frank is stung by Mary's remarks, because he knows they are true. He has concentrated so completely on being a "success" that everything he most valued at the beginning of his career has long been left behind. The evening ends traumatically with the breakup of Frank's unhappy marriage to his wife Gussie, a former leading actress in one of his early musicals, when she viciously attacks Meg, his mistress.

The years roll back to 1973 ("MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG - FIRST TRANSITION"). Frank and his long-time lyricist collaborator and friend, Charley Kringas, are about to be interviewed in a New York TV studio. In the makeup room, Charley greets Mary ("OLD FRIENDS"), and tells her that Frank is now so busy making deals that he never has time to write shows anymore with him. Mary wonders plaintively why can't their collective friendship be "Like It Was". When the TV interview goes ahead, a nervous Charley launches into a demented rampage on the way his composer has transformed himself into a corporation ("FRANKLIN SHEPARD INC"). As Charley careers ferociously between bitterness and self-contempt, Frank walks out. Their friendship is over.

It's now 1968, and Charley and Frank are in Frank's apartment on Central Park West ("MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG - SECOND TRANSITION"). He and Charley are arguing over his decision to do a movie version of one of their shows, Musical Husbands. Frank wants to do it for the money, but Charley says that it will get in the way of writing any new musicals for some time. Mary looks on, and when the argument starts getting out of control reminds them that they are all still old friends ("OLD FRIENDS- PART II"). But nothing's that simple anymore. The Broadway producer Joe Josephson and his wife Gussie arrive. She and Frank have been having a longterm affair. Joe has learnt to live with it, but Mary, hopelessly in love with Frank, finds it much harder to accept. When the others leave, Gussie startles Frank by announcing that she intends to live with him and divorce Joe in the process ("GROWING UP").

The years rewind to 1966 ("MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG - THIRD TRANSITION"). Frank is being sued for divorce by Beth, and they wrangle over the custody of their young son in a courthouse in Lower Manhattan. Beth tells him that "NOT A DAY GOES BY" when he isn't a part of her life, but she can't live with him knowing he is cheating on her with Gussie. The marriage is over. Okay, learn to live with it, their friends say ("NOW YOU KNOW").

Act II

Act II opens on the scene of the opening night of Musical Husbands. Gussie, having just discovered that Frank fancies her, ponders what could come between the two of them ("ACT TWO OPENING"). Meanwhile the curtain comes down on the show. As the audience applauds wildly, Broadway's latest words-and-music team, Charley and Frank, have just found themselves a hit. ("IT'S A HIT!")

The years peal back further to 1962 ("MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG - FOURTH TRANSITION") at a party in Gussie and Joe's elegant Sutton Place apartment. Gussie has thrown a soirée so that Frank and Charley, who are going to write a musical for Joe to produce, can meet all the richest and most influential people in town ("THE BLOB"). Gussie invites the songwriters to perform their latest song, "GOOD THING GOING". The guests love it. Gussie simply fawns over the number and implores them to do it again. Charley urges Frank not to. "You want to know what true greatness is? It's knowing when to get off," Charley says. But Frank has already transformed. They play the song again, but the guests quickly lose interest and resume their cocktail chatter ("THE BLOB - PART II").

Back to 1960, the dawn of a new decade with new hopes ("MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG - FIFTH TRANSITION"). Charley, Frank and Beth are young and on the outset of their carriers, playing a small nightclub in Greenwich Village. Trying to appear bright and sophisticated, they perform a cheeky number celebrating the accession of America's new First Family ("BOBBY AND JACKIE AND JACK"). Joe is in the tiny audience and he's quite impressed, as is his wife Gussie, who is strongly attracted to Frank at this first meeting. Afterwards, Frank explains that he's marrying Beth and pledges that a day doesn't go by when she's not a part of his life ("NOT A DAY GOES BY - PART II"). At an adjoining table, Mary echoes the sentiment; it's how she'll always feel about Frank.

It's 1959 ("MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG - SIXTH TRANSITION") and Frank, Charley and Mary are busy in New York, establishing their careers ("OPENING DOORS"). The boys audition for Joe, but he wants more hummable tunes. So they decide to do their own show and end up hiring Beth.

The years finally take us back to October, 1957 ("MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG - SEVENTH TRANSITION"). It's 5:30am, and Frank, Charley and Mary are on the roof of an old apartment house on New York City's 110th Street, waiting for the first-ever earth-orbiting satellite. Suddenly, Sputnik is there in the sky, and for the three young friends, anything is possible ("OUR TIME").

Original song list

Act I
  • The Hills of Tomorrow
  • Merrily We Roll Along (1980)
  • Rich and Happy
  • Merrily We Roll Along (1979-1975)
  • Old Friends
  • Like It Was
  • Merrily We Roll Along (1974 -1973)
  • Franklin Shepard, Inc.
  • Old Friends (Reprise)
  • Not a Day Goes By
  • Now You Know

Act II
  • It's a Hit!
  • Merrily We Roll Along (1964-1962)
  • Good Thing Going
  • Merrily We Roll Along (1961-1960)
  • Bobby and Jackie and Jack
  • Not a Day Goes By (Reprise)
  • Opening Doors
  • Our Time
  • The Hills of Tomorrow (Reprise)

1993 Revival Song List (Current Version)

Act I
  • Overture - Orchestra
  • Merrily We Roll Along - Company
  • That Frank - Frank & Guests
  • First Transition - Company
  • Old Friends (Part I) - Mary & Charley
  • Like It Was - Mary
  • Franklin Shepard, Inc. - Charley
  • Second Transition - Company
  • Old Friends (Part II) - Mary, Frank & Charley
  • Growing Up - Frank & Gussie
  • Third Transition - Company
  • Not a Day Goes By - Beth
  • Now You Know - Mary & Company

Act II
  • Act Two Opening - Gussie
  • It's A Hit - Joe, Frank, Charley, Mary, Beth
  • Fourth Transition - Company
  • The Blob - Gussie & Company
  • Growing Up (Part II) - Gussie
  • Good Thing Going - Charley
  • The Blob (Part II) - Company
  • Fifth Transition - Company
  • Bobby and Jackie and Jack - Charley, Beth, Frank, Pianist
  • Not A Day Goes By - Beth, Mary, Frank
  • Sixth Transition - Company
  • Opening Doors - Frank, Charley, Mary, Joe, a very bad soprano, Beth
  • Seventh Transition - Frank Jr, Beth, Mrs. Spencer
  • Our Time - Frank, Charley, Mary, and Company


"Not a Day Goes By," "Good Thing Going," "Old Friends," and "Our Time" have been recorded by various artists, including Frank Sinatra, Petula Clark, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Betty Buckley, Cleo Laine, Liza Minnelli, Barbara Cook, Patti LuPone, Barry Manilow, Audra McDonald, and Lena Horne, and are popular especially with singers who perform on the cabaret circuit.

The original Broadway cast recording of this production was released by RCA as an LP album in April 1982, and on compact disc in 1986. A digitally remastered CD was released by Sony/BMG Broadway Masterworks in 2007 with bonus tracks including "It's A hit" (performed by Stephen Sondheim) and "Not A Day Goes By" (sung by Bernadette Peters).

Awards and nominations

Sondheim was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Original Score and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music, and won the Drama Desk prize for his lyrics. Ann Morrison won the 1982 Theatre World Award for her performance.


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