How Did It Get Here from There, Mr. Shepard?
By Emily Young
Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s adaptation of Kaufman and Hart’s play by the same name, opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theater on October 1, 1981. After only sixteen performances, the show flopped, and closed with condemning reviews. Critics agreed that while the show’s score stood up to Sondheim’s past (and future) work, the rest of the show just couldn’t hold water.
Merrily works backwards in time, a plot device that can add interest, and has been used successfully in other shows (including The Last Five Years), but proved too confusing for audiences, especially when combined with a crowd of indistinguishable characters. The show was so hard to follow that, in an infamous incident, the cast once wore sweatshirts with the names of their characters written across the front in order to help people keep track of them all.
The three central characters were also flawed. The protagonist, Frank Shepard, came off mean and cynical in the first scenes, and audiences were turned off. Nobody wants to sit for two hours to learn about the career of a person they don’t like.
By 1990, Merrily had been heavily revised. A production directed by Temple’s own Douglas C. Wager in Washington D.C. opened to warmer reviews. The show’s reverse time frame was no longer impossible to follow, and it no longer depended on the counterproductive framing device of a high school graduation. The three principle characters were by then played by adults who got younger and younger, rather than teenagers made to look older, as in the original. Part of the success probably derived from the large body of Sondheim fans who, between 1981 and 1990, fell in love with the 1981 cast recording but had no memory of the disastrous original production.
But some still felt that Frank Shepard was too unlikeable to make an engaging protagonist. Without a word to say for himself until an hour into the show, audiences still had no chance to engage with him, even when talented actors took on the role.
In 1992, the show finally found its footing. Merrily went across the pond and found great success in London. The show made its West End debut in 2000, and the 2013 production received more 5-star reviews than any show in West End history. The show which Frank Rich described as “coming closer on every orbit” had finally touched ground.
Merrily We Roll Along went off-Broadway in 1994, and has since been produced all over the US, both in full and in concert. After decades of not-so-merrily rolling along, Merrily finally reached found success.
Temple Theaters’ production of Merrily We Roll Along opens Friday, March 13 in the Randall Theater.