Merrily We Roll Along: From Broadway Flop to Tony Award-Winning Revival

"Merrily We Roll Along": From Broadway Flop to Tony Award-Winning Revival

In the annals of Broadway history, stories of resilience and redemption abound, none more striking than that of "Merrily We Roll Along." Initially met with disappointment and closure in 1981, this Stephen Sondheim musical has since undergone a remarkable transformation, culminating in a triumphant revival that captured the hearts of audiences and critics alike.

The Inauspicious Beginning

"Merrily We Roll Along" premiered on November 16, 1981, at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre) in New York City. The musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by George Furth, was based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The production featured a reverse chronology, tracing the lives of three friends—composer Franklin Shepard, writer Mary Flynn, and lyricist Charley Kringas—backwards from disillusioned adulthood to hopeful youth.

Initial Reception and Critical Response

Despite the pedigree of its creators, "Merrily We Roll Along" struggled to find an audience. Critics and theatergoers alike found the reverse timeline confusing and the lack of a traditional narrative structure challenging. The musical closed after only 16 performances and 52 previews, marking it as one of the most notorious flops in Broadway history at the time.

Stephen Sondheim's Reaction and Legacy

Stephen Sondheim, already renowned for his groundbreaking work in musical theater with successes like "Company" and "Sweeney Todd," was deeply affected by the failure of "Merrily We Roll Along." The experience led him to reassess the musical and its themes, particularly regarding friendship, ambition, and the passage of time. Despite its initial reception, Sondheim's dedication to innovation and complexity in storytelling remained steadfast throughout his career.

Cult Following and Early Revivals

Despite its initial failure, "Merrily We Roll Along" began to develop a cult following among theater aficionados and Sondheim enthusiasts. Various regional productions and concert performances in the years following its Broadway closure kept the musical alive in the public consciousness. These productions often experimented with the structure and narrative of the show, seeking to uncover its true potential.

La Jolla Playhouse Revival (1985)

The first significant attempt at reviving "Merrily We Roll Along" came in 1985 at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. This production, directed by James Lapine with revisions to the book and staging, aimed to address the criticisms of the original Broadway run. While not without its challenges, the La Jolla production garnered more positive reviews and signaled a renewed interest in the musical's potential for revival.

Off-Broadway and Regional Successes

Throughout the late 1980s and into the 1990s, "Merrily We Roll Along" continued to be revisited in various off-Broadway and regional theater settings. These productions often experimented with different interpretations of the musical's structure and character dynamics. Notable among these revivals was a critically acclaimed off-Broadway production at the York Theatre Company in 1994, which brought renewed attention to the musical's score and themes.

Kennedy Center Concert (2000) and Further Reinterpretations

In 2000, "Merrily We Roll Along" received a concert performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Directed by Eric Schaeffer, this production featured an all-star cast and aimed to showcase the musical's enduring appeal. Such concert performances and special engagements helped to keep the spirit of the musical alive while also reintroducing it to new generations of theatergoers.

Encores! Revival (2012) and Critical Acclaim

A pivotal moment in the resurgence of "Merrily We Roll Along" came with the 2012 Encores! production at New York City Center. Directed by James Lapine, this revival received significant attention and praise for its thoughtful reinterpretation of the musical. Critics and audiences responded positively to the production, which highlighted the emotional depth and thematic richness of Sondheim's score.

Broadway Revival and Tony Award Success

Building on the momentum of the Encores! production, "Merrily We Roll Along" returned to Broadway in a new production directed by Maria Friedman in 2023. This revival, featuring a talented cast and updated staging, captured the essence of Sondheim's original vision while making the musical accessible to contemporary audiences. The production garnered rave reviews and, notably, won multiple Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical.

Reflections on the Musical's Journey

The journey of "Merrily We Roll Along" from a Broadway flop to a Tony Award-winning revival is a testament to the resilience of artistic vision and the enduring power of theater to captivate and inspire. It underscores the importance of revisiting and reinterpreting works that may have been ahead of their time or misunderstood in their initial presentations.

Stephen Sondheim's Legacy and Influence

Stephen Sondheim's contributions to musical theater are unparalleled, with "Merrily We Roll Along" standing as both a challenge and a triumph in his storied career. His willingness to push boundaries and explore complex themes has left an indelible mark on the industry, influencing generations of theater artists and audiences alike.


The revival of "Merrily We Roll Along" serves as a poignant reminder of the transformative power of theater and the enduring appeal of Stephen Sondheim's work. What began as a disappointment in 1981 has blossomed into a celebrated musical that continues to resonate with audiences around the world. As the theater landscape evolves, "Merrily We Roll Along" stands as a testament to the timeless themes of friendship, ambition, and the passage of time—a true testament to the enduring spirit of Broadway.


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