Forty years ago today, the above ad appeared in the New York Times “Arts and Leisure” on November 15, 1981. There was also a front-page article in that section about the tumultuous preview period for this new Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, budgeted at $1.5 million (yes, you read that right). The article, titled “More Changes Than I Was Used To,” is a quote from the show's director, Harold Prince, who suffered mightily by way of the show's excessively long preview period in New York (it eschewed an out-of-town engagement — huge mistake). First scheduled to premiere November 1st, it finally limped injured and severely battered towards its opening night after two weeks of additional previews. During those six weeks of struggling to get things right in front of thousands of paying customers, the show simply failed to tell its story in a cohesive and satisfying way. Written as it was in reverse chronology, the device made for a brilliant Sondheim score, relying on his genius for playing on themes. But the book never found the right overall tone, though some scenes like the TV talk show set up for “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” and “Our Time's” rooftop needed little rewriting and worked beautifully from the first preview on.

The song "It's a Hit!" (which "Merrily” was not) featuring Sally Klein, Jason Alexander, Lonny Price, Jim Walton and Ann Morrison, original cast members of "Merrily We Roll Along" (1981).

It told the story of three major characters (Frank, Charley and Mary) beginning in 1980, supposedly all "rich and happy" adults, back to 1955 when they were on the cusp of beginning their independent lives after graduating from high school. It was loosely based on the young idealists Prince and Sondheim once were (they'd first met when Prince was an assistant stage manager and Sondheim had yet to boast a professional credit to his name). Their female friend was based on Mary Rodgers, a writer who would go on to compose the score for Once Upon a Mattress and write the novel Freaky Friday, among other accomplishments. The creators knew the territory, which was friendship and how success can corrupt it — a worthy subject — and Sondheim was pretty much at his creative peak. He and Prince had seen it all and with each just past fifty, this was a good time for that sort of self-reflection. 

Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim in 1981, both ever youthful, even past fifty.

The main reason I was present at Merrily's first preview was a personal one: I had three friends in it who had been sharing with me the ins and outs of their year-long journey with the show. That was due to it having been postponed for nine months (Sondheim hadn't delivered the score in a timely manner and Prince was loathe to go into rehearsal that way, though it had happened on both A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd, and those turned out better than okay). With Merrily's cast consisting of a young and untested company, most new to the business and just starting out, this was a wise decision. During that 3/4 of a year waiting period, many held onto their day jobs such as waiters and nannies, though James Weissenbach, who was set to play the leading role, was fortunate to get two gigs: one over the summer as Barnaby in a short tour of Hello, Dolly! (with Carol Channing herself), as well as a CBS-TV movie, Senior Trip, that also had a barely-old-enough-to-legally drink Jason Alexander (engaged to portray producer Joe Josephson) and Liz Callaway, an ensemble member and understudy for the female lead. I had also been cast in Senior Trip and we all bonded back in April 1981 when we shot it on location around and about New York City. Come September, they all went into rehearsal for Merrily, and I would receive reports on how it was going. Optimism was high, but reality soon set in — and quickly.

Even now forty years later, I have never heard such vitriolic talk at an intermission of a Broadway show. People were walking out on a new Sondheim-Prince musical! I mean, I was distressed that the show wasn't working, but I certainly didn't hate it. And with pros like Sondheim, Prince and Furth, the necessary changes to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear were doable. There was much to praise, but the gleefulness with which I overheard people picking it apart like vultures over a corpse shocked me. Did that mean it was already dead? Could it be fixed? Would the eventual firing of its choreographer Ron Field, who had created the dances for Prince's Cabaret fifteen years prior, and replacing him with Prince's Evita and On the 20th Century collaborator, Larry Fuller, be the answer? Turned out, no. And would plucking ensemble member Jim Walton out of the chorus (who hadn't been hired as the understudy for Franklin Shepard) and throwing him on with little notice for James Weissenbach save the day? Nope. That didn't change things all that much either, though Walton acquitted himself well (I would return to the show two more times).

Again, to go back to that first night, the excitement in the air had been palpable. You could feel it before the conductor Paul Gemignani lifted his baton for what was a truly magnificent overture. After all, this was the first Sondheim-Prince opus since Sweeney Todd two years prior. And no one could deny that the entire decade in musical theatre had belonged to these two brilliant showmen. In addition to 1979's Sweeney, between 1970 and 1976 they had put forth Company, Follies, A Little Night Music and Pacific Overtures. You had to go back to Rodgers and Hammerstein's string of critically acclaimed hits (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I) between 1943 and 1951 for anything comparable. With Merrily, Sondheim and Prince were going for something outside the composer's usual purview, in that it was going to be closer to a conventional musical than they'd done before (it even had an overture!). And though its backward structure was daring, it wasn't unheard of. Kaufman and Hart's original play was constructed that way as was British playwright Harold Pinter's Betrayal, which had played Broadway a year before Merrily

As for that overture, it sent a ripple through the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) practically singing out that we were in for something bright and “up.” And though Merrily had some serious themes, it was certainly aiming for something easier to absorb musically than we had been getting from Mr. Sondheim since 1962's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Not for nothing, a recording by Frank Sinatra of “Good Thing Going” was on the radio before Merrily opened. And expectations were also high with George Furth taking on the show's libretto, after his wonderfully arch and funny writing for his Tony Award winning book to Company. The only variable was its cast, consisting overwhelmingly of unknowns, the average age of which hovered below twenty-five. And they numbered twenty-six, twenty-one of them making their Broadway debuts.

The "Merrily" marquee in 1981. Up for six weeks of previews and two weeks beyond its opening night.

The notion of casting the show younger, forcing them to play older at the start and then be their real ages at the finish, sounded good on paper. “I was charmed by the beginnings of their artistry, the roughness of their craft, their inexperience,” Prince told the New York Times. “I was charmed as hell by that, but we realized that other people were not as charmed, and that they wanted more polish. They were also very confused by 26 characters, and so much information.”

Jim Walton, Lonny Price and Ann Morrison, the first Frank, Charley and Mary (1981).

With that as an unfixable element, the reviews were mostly terrible. But true to form, practically every true Sondheim fan in New York City went to see it. They weren't enough to keep it running, especially with word of mouth being so poor, and it closed in two weeks. But for the cast, it was (to paraphrase a lyric from the show) “the best worst thing that could have happened,” which became the title of the documentary that cast member Lonny Price (Charley), now a remarkably successful director, released in theaters in 2016. For a highly entertaining and very moving exploration on all things Merrily, find this film on a streaming service and go back in time for a nostalgic, though realistic version of all that went right and wrong.

Merrily has had a significant number of revisions in dozens of productions over the years, too many to list here. To the surprise of even its creators, when it finally had its London premiere in 2000, it won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. Many actors with love in their hearts have lent their considerable talents in search of a way to make it work. Those that have played in it have included Becky Ann Baker, Wayne Brady, Colin Donnell, Raul Esparza, Daniel Evans, Maria Friedman, Victor Garber, David Garrison, Malcolm Gets, Michael Hayden, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Aaron Lazar, Marin Mazzie, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Heather McRae, Julian Ovenden, John Rubinstein, Emily Skinner, Elizabeth Stanley, Betsy Wolfe and Chip Zien. And get ready for when in the next 12-15 years, filmmaker Richard Linklater, similar to how his Boyhood was shot over a dozen-year spread, will release a movie of Merrily. Well-cast actors Blake Jenner, Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein will age in real-life, an exciting proposition to be sure.

Beanie Feldstein (Mary), Ben Platt (Charley), Blake Jenner (Frank) and Richard Linkater (director).

That four-decades old Times interview with Hal Prince concluded with his stating that whether or not Merrily was a hit or a flop, he would do what he did the morning after every opening night:

“I call a meeting in my office to talk about my next show. It's something George Abbott taught me. The meeting is already set, and I've found it's the very best thing you can do.”

That meeting would wind up producing a musical titled A Doll's Life, which closed in a weekend on Broadway two months shy of a year later. However, to close on a high note, in January of 1986, Prince would have the biggest smash of his career, The Phantom of the Opera

In the words of Sondheim’s title tune for Merrily, “Dreams don't die, so keep an eye on your dreams.”

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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Ron Fassler

Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."