Merrily follows three friends—Frank, a composer turned film producer; Charley, a lyricist and playwright; and Mary, the journalist and critic gluing them together—over roughly 20 years, working backward from their jaded, fractious 40s to their first meeting as bright-eyed 20-somethings, full of wonder as they spot Sputnik from a rooftop. Keen to make the piece a showcase for young performers, Prince cast actors very early in their careers (among them a 22-year-old Jason Alexander, long before he became Seinfeld’s George Costanza, and, in the chorus, a 20-year-old Liz Callaway) and commissioned a set made up of moving bleachers and gym lockers.
The repeated motifs of Sondheim’s score—inspired by brassy Broadway musicals of the 1950s—riffed on the story’s reverse chronology. (“How did you get to be here?” is the title song’s loaded refrain.) And Merrily made good sense in the composer‑lyricist’s oeuvre, both throwing a doleful glance at dreams of the past as his Follies—about a reunion of former showgirls—had done years earlier, and anticipating Sunday in the Park with George’s preoccupation with the troubles of being an artist. Yet Merrily was a giant flop, lasting only 16 performances. In The New Yorker, Brendan Gill knocked its underdeveloped script, “negligible” choreography, and dusty source material. “Mr. Sondheim has given this evening a half dozen songs that are crushing and beautiful,” observed Frank Rich in The New York Times. “But the show that contains them is a shambles….We keep waiting for some insight into these people—that might make us understand, if not care, about them.” The challenge of Merrily is that its structure plunges you into dynamics and conflicts that have been decades in the making. However lovely the songs, can the characters’ hurt and resentment really resonate when you’ve only just met them—and they’re played by people barely out of high school? At the following year’s Tonys, Merrily eked out a single nomination for Sondheim’s score, made up of now beloved numbers like “Old Friends” and “Not a Day Goes By,” but didn’t win.
The rewriting and reworking began immediately. With input from James Lapine, who would replace Prince as Sondheim’s principal collaborator for the next decade, Merrily was workshopped in regional theaters across America until 1992, when it went to the Leicester Haymarket Theatre in England. There, Sondheim would later say, “we finally got the show we wanted.”
Some iteration of that script would guide revivals of Merrily for the next 30 years, including an Encores! presentation led by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Celia Keenan-Bolger in 2012 and an ambitious movie adaptation from Richard Linklater, announced in 2019, that stars Paul Mescal, Ben Platt, and Beanie Feldstein and is being filmed over 20 years. While those versions were greeted with various degrees of warmth or anticipation, it’s safe to say that none had the rapturous reception of the sold-out production at the New York Theatre Workshop last winter. “Is this production finally, forty years later, the definitive ‘Merrily’?” asked The New Yorker, while the Times’ glowing review announced: “ ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ Returns, the Way It Never Was.”
Still, her show found an enthusiastic audience. After one run-through, Friedman spotted two people sobbing in the theater when the lights came up; they were, to her surprise, her younger sister, producer Sonia Friedman, and David Babani, artistic director of the Menier Chocolate Factory, who had sneaked in together. Over coffee the next day, Sonia urged Friedman to try her hand at a professional production (it would be her directorial debut) at the Chocolate Factory, an off–West End incubator in central south London. “She said, ‘David wants to do this.’ So I just said yes.”
As they move into the Hudson—which Friedman selected for its intimate-feeling scale (of Broadway’s 41 active theaters, it’s one of only nine that seats under 1,000 people)—she is keen to protect that enchantment. “I am absolutely determined not to do anything different,” Friedman says. “The piece is the piece; it speaks for itself. And as long as we keep the integrity of that and the joy and the warmth and the love and the storytelling—it should sing.” This has more or less been her line from the beginning. “One of the things that Maria has said from day one is, ‘I have not changed a lyric of this show or a word of the script. I am doing this show as written,’ ” Groff says. “It’s not like she’s doing a take on Merrily. She really believes in the piece itself without adding any sort of flashy concept.”