1. In 1934, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Merrily We Roll Along comes to Broadway. It’s a play about a young and idealistic songwriter who becomes middle-aged and disillusioned—but it has a happy ending because the scenes run in reverse. Reviews are good, business is bad, and it closes in four months.
2. In 1981, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth adapt Merrily into a musical. Hal Prince’s Broadway production is troubled, with abrupt creative changes and a too-young cast, and reviews are harsh, particularly on Furth’s book. It lasts sixteen performances. Discouraged, Sondheim threatens to quit theater to create video games.
3. In 1985, James Lapine takes a crack at the book. “He got George and me to rewrite the first half-hour, and it made all the difference in the world,” Sondheim says today. Merrily opens at the La Jolla Playhouse; the L.A. Times critic calls it “watered-down.” Sondheim calls this production “the stencil.”
4. In 1990, the La Jolla version comes to Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage: “The director decided he wanted to play the last scene first, which was not a good idea, but he did it anyway,” says Sondheim. Frank Rich (then the Times theater critic) declares the show “much improved,” adding, “The time is surely coming for Merrily.” Further rewriting, for productions in Phoenix and Seattle and at the U.K.’s Haymarket Theater, eventually makes the show, says Sondheim, “what we wanted it to be.”
5. For 1994’s York Theatre Company Off Broadway revival, Sondheim and Furth go one more round. Director Susan Schulman says “the biggest changes were in who sang what in the transitions, getting us gracefully back to the past.” This script becomes the one that’s licensed for future productions.
6. Further streamlining takes place for a Donmar Warehouse production in 2000—and the song “The Hills of Tomorrow” returns at beginning and end. By now, Sondheim has combined the second and third scenes. Variety says this version “doesn’t so much solve all the show’s problems as soar above them on wings of empathy.”
7. One more time! For the “Encores!” production at City Center, opening on February 8, director Lapine is tinkering with the first book scene. Artistic director Jack Viertel offers that “it resembles La Jolla and Off Broadway, and the text of the Arena Stage one, more than the original.” Sondheim says Merrily is now “past refinement,” since Furth died in 2008, though “I’m sure George is still tweaking in whatever world he’s in at the moment.”