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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 would be making a film adaptation, and will film the 20 years covered in the story in real time, much like how he made Boyhood. Production is scheduled to wrap up in 2039 at the earliest. The cast is headlined by Paul Mescal as Franklin, Ben Platt as Charley, and Beanie Feldstein as 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
  • Ambiguously Gay:
    • A lot of actors will play Charley like Mary isn't the only one in love with Frank.
    • A frequent joke will have some characters looking unsure when they sing "A son who's straight," in "That Frank."
    • Frank himself mentions having to get coaching after getting caught in a raid on the nighclub he plays at. Given that he lived in Greenwich village at that point, it's all but explicitly stating that he frequented gay-friendly nightclubs.
  • Awful Wedded Life: In the first scene, Gussie and Frank are still married but can't stand each other and he's cheating on her with Meg.
  • 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.
  • Became Their Own Antithesis: "Rich and Happy" / "That Frank" use a debased quotation from "Our Time" ("It's my time, coming through") to show how Frank has gone against all his ideals.
  • Beneath the Mask: Both Frank and Gussie eventually admit that for all their fame, they're not actually happy.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The musical ends with one of Sondheim's most touching Friendship Songs, "Our Time", but see Dramatic Irony below.
  • Break the Cutie: A lot of it is their own choices, and we see the broken versions first, but Frank starts out Endearingly Dorky and ends up a rich, self-loathing asshole, Gussie's Large Ham becomes violently bitter, Mary goes from an idealistic teetotaller to spending her life drinking, and Beth is a trusting Genki Girl at first then wanting to kill Frank after he cheats. Charley is the only one who keeps his ethics, but even he has a breakdown on air.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: Charley admits he likes making money, but when it's the main priority and the artistry has turned into a corporation, that's when it's bad.
  • The Chew Toy: Poor Meg is innocent and sweet, but she gets strung along by Frank, insulted by Mary, and gets a full splash of iodine in her eyes by Gussie.
  • 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.
    • "Rich and Happy" and its post-Broadway replacement "That Frank" both use "Our Time" in the bridge (mixed in with "The Blob" in the latter song), showing just how much Frank is lying to himself and fallen from those idealistic days of thinking he could do anything.
    • "Franklin Shepherd Inc", Charley's evisceration of Frank for only caring about making money rather than making genuinely good art, is used throughout the background of the first section to "Opening Doors" as a younger Frank and Charley are happily working together to create their musical passion project.
    • Chronologically, "Good Thing Going" starts out life as a jaunty tune about falling in love in Frank and Charley's (unproduced) musical heard in "Opening Doors". The tune ultimately winds up becoming a slow ballad about falling out of love.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mary, especially early on. Gussie is a bitter version when she and Frank have an Awful Wedded Life, and Charley snarks throughout.
  • Devoted to You: Frank. Mary is immovably in love with him for their entire friendship, even when he shows no romantic interest in her and treats her increasingly worse the more successful he gets. Beth sings an entire song about how she’ll always love him even after they’re divorced and hate each other.
    • Some productions play Charley up as being in love with Frank also, despite him having just as much reason to give up on him as Mary.
  • Digging Yourself Deeper: There's a lot of Jerkass Has a Point in "Franklin Shepherd Inc", but Charley also knows this is a horrible idea and he can't seem to stop himself. Sure enough it ends the friendship.
  • 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.
  • The Eleven O'Clock Number:
    • Played with, "Opening Doors" shows Frank, Charley and Mary working on trying to get their start in the business, but given that the show runs in reverse, it would actually be one of the first songs chronologically.
    • On the same level while its one of the first songs featured in the score, chronologically "Old Friend" in which Mary tries to smooth out the conflict between Frank and Charley, pining for how it used to be between the three, would be this.
  • 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.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Beth when she's happy has her hair down, but after she feels betrayed and is draining Frank for all he has, has her hair in a bun.
  • Eye Scream: A lot of productions will add a sizzling effect when Gussie throws iodine in Meg's eyes.
  • Friend Versus Lover: Gussie doesn't like Charley or Mary, and the feeling is more than mutual. To a lesser extent, they get on with Beth during the "happy years" but Charley/Mary don't trust her at first, and they coddle Frank after he cheated on her.
  • 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.
  • Greek Chorus: "Merrily We Roll Along" (the title song) is often sung by characters in Frank's life, and a lot of productions will have it be sung gleefully sadistic about how much he's messed everything up.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: The auditioning girl in "Opening Doors." "Sopranos with voices like bees" indeed.
  • I Am What I Am:
    • Mary's "toast" to Frank:
      Mary: To Franklin Shepherd, the man who has everything. And fat, drunk, and finished, I'd rather be me any day.
    • Julia (Mary's counterpart in the original play) has an even more bitter version of this toast:
      Julia: To Richard Niles! Our most fashionable playwright! The man who has everything! And I'd rather be what I am — a drunken whore!
  • 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.
  • Instantly Proven Wrong: Frank tells Mary that his new friends are the "most brilliant minds on the coast", while at the same time they're singing "moving back to Mexico" on a loop.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Beth's parents are against her marriage to Frank, though they eventually give their blessings for the wedding. They turn out to be right when he cheats on her.
  • Lady Drunk: Mary, by the end/beginning. Julia, her counterpart in the original play, even more so.
  • 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.
  • Mirror Character: Frank and Gussie. Both are brought up from nothing by people with more clout and influence than them (Joe in Gussie's case and Gussie in Frank's), both completely change their demeanor, style, and careers to pursue a glamorous life of showbusiness, both are serial monogamists who can't seem to stay faithful or happy in their relationships, and both end up unhappy and alienated even though they're married and successful.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: A composer and a playwright wrote a story about…a composer and a playwright.
  • Never My Fault: While Mary is enabling and Charley is self-righteous, and both those have responsibility in how things turned out, Frank in later (read: earlier) scenes continually plays the victim card, acting like he's completely justified in selling out and they're just bitter.
  • 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 (though she is partially based on Sondheim's friend Mary Rodgers).
  • Not Quite the Right Thing: Charlie, Mary, and Frank's legal and professional team advise him to leave New York for greener pastures after his divorce with Beth, wanting to keep him from wallowing in his grief and regret. Unfortunately, the audience has already seen how severely he's grown apart from his friends after following their advice.
  • Nouveau Riche: Gussie's first chronological appearance is as a shy, modestly-dressed receptionist working for Joe; in many productions she has a strong working class accent. By the time she introduces herself properly to Frank at a party, she's changed her look significantly, adopted a refined mid-atlantic accent, a high fashion sense, and a larger-than-life demeanor.
  • Oblivious to Love: Frank to Mary, even throughout twenty years and two disastrous marriages.
  • One-Book Author: Mary in-universe. Charley attributes her not writing anything else (and becoming a drama critic) to depression.
  • Only Friend: By the end/beginning, Frank has lost his only two real friends. Mary exits after publicly calling him out at a party, and Charley gets unpersoned after the interview.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: Many productions of the show end Our Time with Franklin picking up his compositions as if he had just rediscovered them, suggesting that Franklin himself experienced his memories with the audience and reconnected with what was important to him when he started. His life is likely still a complete mess, but having rediscovered his passion offers hope that it isn't too late to correct his course.
  • 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.
  • The Snark Knight: What Mary turns into after she's Stopped Caring, loud, drunk, angry and insulting everyone.
  • Stopped Caring: Before the interview, Mary admits that she's starting not to care, and is also drinking too much. By the time of the party, she's in full-on loathing for everyone including herself.
  • Take That, Critics!: Played with when Joe makes the same criticisms of Frank's work that many have made of Sondheim's work.
  • Theatre is True Acting: "Theatre is true composing" variation. Franklin Shepard gives up his career as a successful Broadway composer to produce formulaic films, losing the respect of his friends and colleagues along the way.
  • 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.
  • Tragedy: The play starts with everything ruined, and then travels back in time to see everyone optimistic about their futures.
    "How does it start to go? Does it slip away slow? So you never even notice it's happening."
  • Two Guys and a Girl: Frank, Charley, and Mary.
  • Unperson: Charley after the interview. Someone at the party says to not miss his new play, everyone gets quiet and Mary explains that the rule is to never mention his name. Before saying it very loudly in Frank's direction.
  • Unrequited Love Lasts Forever: Mary loves Frank from the first moment she meets him, and then for the next twenty years.
  • "The Villain Sucks" Song: "Franklin Shepard Inc." and it's awesome.
  • Woman Scorned: Despite the fact that she and Frank got together by cheating, Gussie is flamingly angry about being cheated on.
  • 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.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: In the first scene, Mary calls out all the vapid idiots gathered in the party, tells Frank he deserves them, and walks out of his life.
  • With Friends Like These...: What the relationship between the three friends eventually degrades into. His new rich friends are portrayed as shallow, enabling morons who will never criticise him ever.
  • 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."