Merrily We Roll Along (musical)

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.

Merrily We Roll Along
Original Broadway poster for Sondheim-Furth musical
MusicStephen Sondheim
LyricsStephen Sondheim
BookGeorge Furth
BasisMerrily We Roll Along
by George S. Kaufman
Moss Hart
Productions1981 Broadway
1985 La Jolla
1994 Off-Broadway
2000 West End
2012 Encores
2013 West End revival
2019 Off-Broadway
AwardsDrama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics
Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical
Laurence Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival

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 talented composer of Broadway musicals, has now abandoned his friends and his songwriting career to become a producer of Hollywood movies. Like the play, the musical begins at the height of his Hollywood fame and moves backwards in time, showing snapshots of the most important moments in Frank's life that shaped the man that he is today. The musical utilizes a chorus that sings reprises of the title song to transition the scenes.

The musical ran on Broadway for 44 previews and 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. That October 21, The New York Times reported that original leading man James Weissenbach had been replaced by Jim Walton, and the Broadway opening postponed.[1] Field was replaced with choreographer Larry Fuller.[2][3][4] The opening was delayed a second time, from November 9 to November 16, 1981.[5]

The Broadway production, directed by Prince and choreographed by Fuller, opened on November 16, 1981, at the Alvin Theatre. 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 afterward, it ran for 16 performances and 52 previews.[6]

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."[7] 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."[8]

The cast included Jim Walton (Franklin Shepard), Lonny Price (Charley Kringas), Ann Morrison (Mary), Terry Finn (Gussie), Jason Alexander (Joe), Sally Klein (Beth), Geoffrey Horne (Franklin Shephard age 43), David Loud (Ted), Daisy Prince (Meg), Liz Callaway (Nightclub Waitress), Tonya Pinkins (Gwen), Abby Pogrebin (Evelyn), and Giancarlo Esposito (Valedictorian).[9]

The audience had trouble following what was going on in the story. Consequently, the actors all ended up wearing sweatshirts with their characters' names. According to Meryle Secrest, "Prince ... dressed everyone in identical sweatshirts and pants. Then he had to add names emblazoned across the sweatshirts because the audience had difficulty telling the actors apart".[10][11][12][13]

Subsequent production history

Throughout the years, with Furth and Sondheim's permission, the musical has been staged with numerous changes. Sondheim has contributed new songs to several of the show's incarnations, most notably "Growing Up", added to the La Jolla 1985 production.[14][15]


A "streamlined" 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 as Franklin Shepard, Adam Heller as Charley Kringas, and Amy Ryder as Mary Flynn.[16] A cast recording was released by Varèse Sarabande.[9][17]

Another Off-Broadway revival, directed by Noah Brody with choreography by Lorin Latarro, began January 12, 2019, opening February 19 and originally set to run to April 7, 2019 (extended to April 14, 2019), by Roundabout Theatre's resident company, Fiasco Theater, at the Laura Pels Theater. The reduced cast includes Manu Narayan, Brittany Bradford, Jessie Austrian, Ben Steinfeld, Paul L. Coffey, and Emily Young.[18]

San Diego and Washington D.C.

A production directed by James Lapine opened on June 16, 1985 at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse, where it ran for 24 performances. The cast included John Rubinstein as Franklin Shepard, Chip Zien as Charley Kringas, Marin Mazzie as Beth and Heather MacRae as Mary Flynn.[15]

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, 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."[19]


The UK premiere of Merrily We Roll Along was presented by the Library Theatre Company in Manchester in 1984, directed by Howard Lloyd Lewis and choreographed by Paul Kerryson.

Paul Kerryson directed a production of the show at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester with orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick and music direction by Julian Kelly. The production opened on 14 April 1992 with a cast that included Michael Cantwell as Frank, Maria Friedman as Mary and Evan Pappas as Charlie.[20] A cast recording of the production was released in 1994 which included extended cuts and dialogue. The show finally received its West End premiere at London's Donmar Warehouse on 11 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.[21]

Maria Friedman directed a revival of the musical at London's Menier Chocolate Factory, which opened on 28 November 2012 and transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End on 1 May 2013. The principals in this production were Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley.[22] The revival won the Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical in the 2012 Critics' Circle Theatre Awards.[23] It was filmed and broadcast to select cinemas in 2013.[9]


The Encores! staged concert at New York City Center ran from February 8, 2012 to February 19. This production was directed by James Lapine and featured Colin Donnell as Franklin Shepard, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Mary Flynn, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charley, Elizabeth Stanley as Gussie Carnegie, and Betsy Wolfe as Beth. This version incorporated parts of revisions done for the 1985 La Jolla Playhouse production and 1990 and 1994 productions.[24]

Other major productions

The first Australian professional production was presented by the Sydney Theatre Company at the Footbridge Theatre in May-July 1996. It featured Tom Burlinson, Tony Sheldon, Peta Toppano, Greg Stone and Gina Riley, and was directed by Wayne Harrison.[25]

In 2002, the show ran for approximately 120 performances at the Shaw Festival in a production directed by Jackie Maxwell and featuring Tyley Ross as Franklin, Jay Turvey as Charley and Jenny L. Wright as Mary.[26]

As part of the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center, a limited engagement of 14 performances opened on July 12, 2002 at the Eisenhower Theater. The cast featured Michael Hayden (Franklin), Miriam Shor (Mary), Raúl Esparza (Charley), and Emily Skinner (Gussie).[27]

A Derby Playhouse production ran from 19 April to 19 May 2007, starring Glyn Kerslake, Glenn Carter and Eliza Lumley in the lead roles.[28] A Signature Theatre (Arlington, Virginia) production, directed by Eric D. Schaeffer, opened on September 4, 2007 and ran through October 14, 2007.[29] John Doyle directed a production running at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury, Berkshire, from January 16, 2008 through March 8, 2008. It featured Sam Kenyon (Franklin), Rebecca Jackson (Gussie), Elizabeth Marsh (Mary) and Thomas Padden (Charlie).[30][31]

Available Light Theatre (AVLT) presented the revised version at the Vern Riffe Center in Columbus, Ohio, from August 19, 2010 through September 4, 2010. It was directed by John Dranschak, and featured Ian Short as Frank, Nick Lingnofski as Charley, and Heather Carvel as Mary. The musical director was Pam Welsh-Huggins.[32] The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park presented a revival directed by John Doyle, using the actor-musician concept, opening on March 3, 2012. The cast included Malcolm Gets (Franklin Shepard), Daniel Jenkins (Charley Kringas), and Becky Ann Baker (Mary Flynn). This production used the 1994 York Theatre revisions.[33]

Clwyd Theatr Cymru at Mold in North Wales performed the musical 10 May – 2 June 2012, directed by Nikolai Foster.[34] PAN Productions staged Merrily We Roll Along in 2014 at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre for the first time in South East Asia. Directed by Nell Ng with music direction by Nish Tham. This production featured Peter Ong (Franklin Shepard), Aaron Teoh (Charley Kringas), Chang Fang Chyi (Mary Flynn), Nikki Palikat (Gussie Carnegie), Stephanie Van Driesen (Beth Spencer), and Dennis Yeap (Joe Josephson).[35][36]

Astoria Performing Arts Center produced an Off-Off-Broadway production in 2015[37] starring Jack Mosbacher as Franklin Shepard, Ally Bonino as Mary Flynn, and Nicholas Park as Charley Kringas. The production won Outstanding Production of a Musical at the 2015 New York Innovative Theatre Awards.[38]

The Wallis Annenberg Center for The Performing Arts in Beverly Hills ran a production from November 23 to December 18, 2016. Directed by Michael Arden, the production stars Aaron Lazar as Franklin Shephard and Wayne Brady as Charley Kringas.[39]

The Huntington Theatre Company produced Maria Friedman's version in Boston, running from September 8, 2017 through October 15. This production won the 2012 Critics' Circle Theater Award.[40]


This is a synopsis of the revised 1994 York Theatre version of the show, not the original one performed on Broadway.

Act I

Franklin Shepard is a rich, famous, and influential songwriter and film producer ("Merrily We Roll Along"). As the years roll back over 20 years of his life, we see how he went from penniless composer to wealthy producer, and what he gave up to get there.

In Frank's swank Los Angeles pad in 1976, after the premiere of his latest film, a party is in full swing. Frank's Hollywood peers are there, and bestow lavish praise on him ("That Frank"). His oldest friend, theatre critic Mary Flynn is also at the party. She is disgusted by the shallow 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 seems happy, but tenses up when a guest mentions a Pulitzer-winning play by Charles Kringas, Frank's former best friend and lyricist. Frank and Mary get a moment alone together, and she chides him for missing his son's graduation. Frank admits to Mary that his new film is just a formula picture, but he promises: just wait for the next film! But Mary has given up waiting, and becomes progressively more inebriated. She gives a drunken toast, castigating Frank and insulting his guests, and storms out of the party (and Frank's life) in a drunken rage. Frank's wife Gussie arrives and they start to argue. She is angry that the leading role in Frank's movie, which she had planned to star in, went to a younger actress, Meg. He has been stung by Mary's rant, and confesses that he has concentrated so completely on being a "success" that everything and everyone he most valued at the beginning of his career has gone. The evening ends traumatically when Gussie confronts Frank with knowledge of his infidelity with Meg, the leading actress in his movie. He ends their marriage, and she viciously attacks Meg by splashing iodine in her eyes.

The years roll back to 1973 ("Merrily We Roll Along – First Transition"). Frank and Charley Kringas are about to be interviewed in a New York TV studio. Mary greets Charley backstage, and Charley tells her that Frank never has time to write shows anymore with him. Mary, whose drinking is steadily worsening, confesses that she has set up the interview to force Frank to publicly commit to writing the show he and Charley have been trying to write for years, but Charley is frustrated and bitter. Mary wonders plaintively why can't their collective friendship be "like it was" ("Old Friends (Part I)- Like It Was"), and Charley realizes that Mary, after 20 years, is still in love with Frank. When Frank finally arrives, his new wife Gussie in tow, tensions are clearly running high. Gussie is trying to avoid her ex-husband, Broadway producer Joe Josephson, who is hitting her up for money, and Frank is fretting over how to tell Charley that he has signed a three-picture deal. Unfortunately, just before the interview begins, the host lets the news slip, infuriating Charley. As they go live on air, an increasingly angry and nervous Charley launches into a furious rant on the way his composer has transformed himself into "Franklin Shepard Inc.", pleading with Frank to return to doing what he does best. After the cameras are shut off, Charley is remorseful, but the damage is done. Frank disowns Charley and walks out - their friendship is over.

It's 1968, and Mary, Charley and Frank are in Frank's new apartment on Central Park West ("Merrily We Roll Along – Second Transition"), welcoming Frank back from a cruise. Charley has brought along Frank's young son, Frankie, whom he has not seen since his divorce. Frank has brought a gift for each of his friends: a copy of Mary's best-selling novel in Spanish, and a contract for a film option on his and Charley's show, Musical Husbands. Charley refuses, and an argument is sparked. Frank wants to option the film version for the money, which he needs after a contentious divorce, but Charley says that it will get in the way of writing anything new. Mary calms them down, reminding them about the importance of their friendship ("Old Friends"), but it is clear that nothing is that simple anymore. Frank's producer Joe and his wife Gussie arrive. Gussie has brought champagne, which the teetotaler Mary refuses. It becomes clear that Frank and Gussie are having an affair, and Charley, Mary and Joe are all aware of it. Mary, who has been in love with Frank for years, is devastated by his irresponsibility and takes a generous gulp of champagne to prove a point. When everyone leaves, Charley lingers and advises Frank to end the affair, encouraging him to join him and Mary for a get together at the club where they got their start. After he leaves, Frank plays through an old song and attempts to make sense of his choices. He seems to be on the verge of composing a new piece but is interrupted when Gussie returns, announcing that she intends to live with him and divorce Joe. ("Growing Up").

On to 1966 ("Merrily We Roll Along – Third Transition"). Frank is being divorced by his wife Beth, and they fight over the custody of their young son in a courthouse. Reporters flock around the scene, anxious to catch gossip since Gussie has been subpoenaed. Frank confronts Beth, who confesses that she still loves him, but that she can't live with him knowing he was unfaithful to her with Gussie ("Not a Day Goes By"). She drags their son away, heading to Houston to live with her father. Frank collapses in despair but is consoled by Mary, Charley and his other remaining friends. His pals convince him to take a cruise, forget and start anew, stating that this was the "best thing that ever could have happened" ("Now You Know").

Act II

In 1964, Gussie appears to be singing about Frank's infatuation with her, but as the scene transforms, and we see that Gussie is performing the song on-stage, as the star of Musical Husbands, on the opening night of Frank and Charley's first Broadway show. The curtain comes down on the show and as the audience applauds, Charley and Frank, who are backstage with Joe, Mary and Beth, realize they have a hit on their hands ("It's a Hit!"). Charley's wife Evelyn is in labour and he and Beth rush to the hospital. Mary asks Beth to stay behind and make sure Frank is not left alone with Gussie, but Beth chooses to trust her husband and leaves Frank on his own, listening to the sound of the audience applauding.

In 1962 ("Merrily We Roll Along – Fourth Transition"): Frank, Beth, Charley and Mary have been invited to a party in Gussie and Joe's elegant Sutton Place apartment, where they stand starstruck by the glamours and the influential crowd. ("The Blob"). Deliberately spilling wine on Beth's dress, Gussie pulls Frank away from the party-goers, confiding her unhappiness to him, and convinces him to write the commercial show Joe is producing, "Musical Husbands", rather than the political satire he and Charley are trying to get produced. ("Growing Up" (Reprise)). Returning to her guests, Gussie invites the songwriters to perform their latest song, "Good Thing Going". The guests love it and Gussie implores them to do an encore. Charley urges Frank not to, but Frank agrees. They play the song again, but the guests quickly lose interest and resume their noisy cocktail chatter ("The Blob" (Reprise)). Charley storms out, as Mary looks on worriedly.

Time turns back to 1960 ("Merrily We Roll Along – Fifth Transition"). Charley, Frank and Beth are performing at a small nightclub in Greenwich Village, with a supportive Mary lending a hand. Trying to appear bright and sophisticated, they perform a song celebrating America's new First Family ("Bobby and Jackie and Jack"). Joe is in the tiny audience and he's quite impressed, as is his new fiancée (and former secretary) Gussie, who is strongly attracted to Frank at this first meeting. After the show, Frank explains to them that he and Beth are marrying. It becomes clear that the wedding is due to her pregnancy, but Frank professes his happiness anyway. With Mary, Charley and Beth's disapproving parents looking on, the happy couple exchanges vows, as a lovelorn Mary tries to swallow her feelings for Frank ("Not a Day Goes By" (Reprise)).

In 1959 ("Merrily We Roll Along – Sixth Transition") Frank, Charley and Mary are busy in New York, working their way up the career ladder ("Opening Doors"), taking any job they can and working feverishly at their respective songs, plays and novels. (Sondheim claims this is the "only autobiographical song [he's] ever written... It's about all of us [writers] in the 50s knocking on the doors of producers and trying to get heard.")[41]The men audition for Joe, but he wants more "hummable" tunes, and instructs them to leave their name with his secretary. So they decide to do their own show and in an ensuing musical montage, end up auditioning and hiring Beth and forming a cabaret show together.

Finally, it is October 1957 ("Merrily We Roll Along – Seventh Transition"). Early in the morning, Frank and Charley are on the roof of an old apartment house on New York City's 110th Street, waiting for the first-ever earth-orbiting satellite. Frank, who is about to be released from the Army, tells Charley how much he likes Charley's plays, and proposes that they turn one, a political satire, into a musical. Mary, their neighbour, arrives to view the satellite, and meets the boys for the first time. She has heard Frank's piano from her apartment, and she tells him how much she admires his music. He speaks eloquently on how much composing means to him. Suddenly, Sputnik is there in the sky, and now, for the young friends, anything is possible ("Our Time").

Musical numbers

From the original Broadway production:

1994 Off-Broadway revival

From the 1994 Off-Broadway revival at York Theatre, which has remained the produced version since:[9]


The original Broadway cast recording 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 two bonus tracks: "It's a Hit" (performed by Stephen Sondheim) and "Not a Day Goes By" (sung by Bernadette Peters).[42]

A cast recording of the 2012 Encores! revival was released by PS Classics as a two-CD set.[43]

"Not a Day Goes By", "Good Thing Going", "Old Friends", and "Our Time" have been recorded by various artists, including Carly Simon, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, Petula Clark, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Betty Buckley, Cleo Laine, Liza Minnelli, Barbara Cook, Patti LuPone, Barry Manilow, Audra McDonald, Michael Crawford and Lena Horne, and are often sung on the cabaret circuit.


Original cast member Lonny Price later directed a documentary produced by Atlas Media titled Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, describing the "thrilling, wrenching experience" of the original production. The documentary opened on November 18, 2016, in New York City,[44][45] followed by a question-and-answer session with Price, moderated by Bernadette Peters.[46]

Film adaptation

In 2019, it was announced that Richard Linklater would be filming an adaptation of the musical. Like Linklater's 2014 film Boyhood, it will be filmed for more than a decade, allowing the actors to age with their characters. Ben Platt, Blake Jenner, and Beanie Feldstein are attached to play Charley Kringas, Franklin Shepard, and Mary Flynn, respectively.[47]

Awards and nominations

Original Broadway production

Year Award Category Nominee Result
1982 Tony Award Best Original Score Stephen Sondheim Nominated
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Music Nominated
Outstanding Lyrics Won
Theatre World Award Ann Morrison Won

1994 Off-Broadway production

Year Award Category Nominee Result
1995 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Musical Nominated
Outstanding Actor in a Musical Malcolm Gets Nominated

Original London production

Year Award Category Nominee Result
2001 Laurence Olivier Award Best New Musical Won
Best Actor in a Musical Daniel Evans Won
Best Actress in a Musical Samantha Spiro Won
Best Theatre Choreographer Peter Darling Nominated

2012 London production

Year Award Category Nominee Result
2012 Critics' Circle Theatre Award Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical Won

2014 London production

Year Award Category Nominee Result
2014 Laurence Olivier Awards Best Musical Revival Won
Best Actress in a Musical Jenna Russell Nominated
Best Supporting Role in a Musical Josefina Gabrielle Nominated
Best Director Maria Friedman Nominated
Best Sound Design Gareth Owen won (tie)
Best Costume Design Soutra Gilmour Nominated
Outstanding Achievement in Music The Orchestra Nominated


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