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Theatre / Merrily We Roll Along

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"Years from now,
We'll remember and we'll come back,
Buy the rooftop and hang a plaque:
This is where we began,
Being what we can."

Merrily We Roll Along is a musical with a book by George Furth and lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim. It is based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Furth and Sondheim retained the basic structure and overall tone of the play but updated it to encompass the period from 1957 to 1976. The plot focuses on Franklin Shepard, who, in 1976, is a one-time composer of Broadway musicals who has become a highly successful but cynical and jaded film producer who has lost his friends, Charley Kringas (also long-time collaborator) and Mary Flynn. Like the play, the musical moves backwards in time showing how Frank has become the man he is today. The musical closed on Broadway after only 16 performances in 1981 and marked the end of the Harold Prince-Sondheim collaborations until Bounce in 2003. It's considered a Cult Classic by some people, and has seen occasional revivals, as well as becoming the subject of the documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.


In 2019, Richard Linklater announced that he's making a film version, reviving the same method he'd used to make Boyhood: the 20 years covered in the story will be filmed in real time, with production finishing in 2039. Blake Jenner plays Franklin, Ben Platt plays Charley, and Beanie Feldstein plays Mary.

Merrily We Trope Along:

  • The Ace: Deconstructed with Frank, especially in "Rich and Happy"/"That Frank" in the new version
  • All Musicals Are Adaptations
  • Back to Front: The scenes are presented backwards, chronologically, separated by years. Fortunately each reprise of "Merrily We Roll Along" (the song) ends with a statement of what year it is now.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The musical ends with one of Sondheim's most touching Friendship Songs, "Our Time", but see Dramatic Irony below.
  • Dark Reprise: Inverted. Since it moves backward chronologically, songs are reprised first, and then used in full during earlier, happier times.
    • Not A Day Goes By is probably the biggest example of this. Chronologically, it is first sung as Beth and Frank are getting married about how they don't want to ever be apart. The next time it is chronologically sung is by Beth after the divorce about how she can't truly move on from Frank no matter how much she wants to.
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  • Deadpan Snarker: Mary, especially early on.
  • Downer Ending: Played with — as a result of the back-to-front structure, it happens at the beginning of the show.
  • Dramatic Irony: A corollary of the Back to Front structure - whenever the audience sees the characters' relationships developing or at a turning point, we've already seen them go wrong. Especially strong and poignant during "Our Time", an inspiring and optimistic song in the last (or first) scene when Frank and Charley meet Mary for the first time and they reflect on how their generation will change the world.
  • Engaging Conversation: Subverted—in the final scene (first chronologically), Mary compliments Frank's music, compelling him to say "I've just met the girl I'm going to marry". He never does, however.
  • Framing Device: The original Broadway production began with an older Frank (played by the only person in the cast over the age of thirty) coming back to his old high school to deliver a speech where he tells the graduating students to give up on their dreams and face life as it is. Rejecting his advice, the students sing the title song and proceed to act out his life in reverse to show how he went wrong. The show ends with a Hope Spot where adult Frank smiles at and reconnects with his younger self. When the creators rewrote the show after it closed on Broadway, they dropped the framing device and only a few productions since then have restored it.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: The auditioning girl in "Opening Doors." "Sopranos with voices like bees" indeed.
  • Informed Ability: Frank is described as a brilliantly talented composer, but almost every time we hear him play one of his songs, it's a variation on "Good Thing Going," making it sound like he's been writing one song over and over again for 20 years.
  • Lady Drunk: Mary, by the end/beginning.
    • Julia, her counterpart in the original play, even more so.
      Julia: To Richard Niles! Our most fashionable playwright! The man who has everything! And I'd rather be what I am — a drunken whore!
  • Left It In: While auditioning an earlier version of “Good Thing Going” for Joe Josephson, Charley sings “They’re always popping their cork”, which he appends with “I’ll fix that line”. Cut to auditions for Frank and Charley’s revue and that line is still there. Eventually averted when the final version of “Good Thing Going” is performed.
  • Lonely at the Top: Frank in the first (presented) scene. Yeah, he's now a hit Hollywood producer rolling in cash and prestige, but he's abandoned all the projects that really matter to him, he's surrounded by shallow phonies (glimpsed in "The Blob") and he's driven away the best friends he's ever had.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: In the original play, the anti-hero's Deadpan Snarker writer friend Julia was based on Dorothy Parker. This is downplayed with Mary, her counterpart in the musical.
  • Oblivious to Love: Frank to Mary, even throughout twenty years and two disastrous marriages.
  • Opening Chorus
  • Ostrich Head Hiding: In the Kaufman and Hart play Merrily We Roll Along, the grotesquely old-fashioned Mrs. Riley complains about the title of a play her daughter is starring in (in 1923), and her son-in-law tries to explain its significance:
    Mrs. Riley: What the hell was it all about, will you tell me that? What did the name mean? "The Ostrich." Wasn't a God-damn bird in it.
    Harry: Well, the whole idea is—people afraid to face things. Sticking your head in the sand.
    Mrs. Riley: Well, why didn't they come out and say so?
  • Patter Song: Parts of Charley's "Franklin Shepard, Inc."
  • Power Trio:
    • Frank: Id
    • Mary: Ego
    • Charley: Superego
  • Quarreling Song: "Old Friends, Part 2" lapses in and out of this.
  • Remarried to the Mistress: Frank's first marriage fell apart because of infidelity. He married his mistress/leading lady... and when the play starts he's been cheating on her, too.
  • Sanity Slippage Song: Downplayed - "Franklin Shepard Inc." doesn't represent a psychotic break, but it is a meltdown (on national TV, live, no less). Charley is aware enough that he can joke about it — "Get the President! There's a crazy man on my TV screen!" Played straight in that it's a great place for the actor to show off.
  • Take That, Critics!: Played with when Joe makes the same criticisms of Frank's work that many have made of Sondheim's work.
  • Trade Your Passion for Glory: Frank gets swept up in big projects that eventually land him on the top of the screenwriting world, but he spends decades wanting to get back to his collaboration with Charley.
  • Two Guys and a Girl: Frank, Charley, and Mary.
  • "The Villain Sucks" Song: "Franklin Shepard Inc." and it's awesome.
  • When You Coming Home, Dad?: In the first presented scene, Mary reminds Frank that he's just missed his son's graduation to work on a film he doesn't even like. The last scene before intermission shows that Frank, once upon a time, dearly loved his son and was heartbroken to lose custody in the divorce.
  • With Friends Like These...: What the relationship between the three friends eventually degrades into.
  • You Owe Me: Alex, he hostess of the television show in the second (presented) scene, is calling in a big favor that Frank, currently famous, owes her. In the last scene before Intermission, we see what that favor was. Years ago, when Alex was a gossip reporter and Frank's first divorce was in progress, her attendant photographer snapped a great photo of Frank and his son reaching for each other. Frank's son was taken away; bereft, Frank begged Alex to not use that photo. She agreed, but said, "You owe me a favor."