Why ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ Will Take 20 Years to Film

Richard Linklater is topping his 'Boyhood' production span with his adaptation of the 1981 musical flop turned cult favorite.
Richard Linklater

Is any movie worth a 20-year wait? Writer/director Richard Linklater, who previously spent 12 years filming his coming-of-age drama Boyhoodrecently completed the first segment of an adaptation of Merrily We Roll Along, which will be in the works for the next two decades.

George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s original Broadway show, an adaptation itself of a 1934 play of the same name by Kaufman and Hart, rose from infamy as a flop in 1981 to a musical theatre favorite. Considering its storied past, Linklater is putting a lot of faith in the chance that audiences will be there when he’s finished.

Merrily We Roll Along tells the story of idealistic composer Frank Shepard as he leaves his friends behind to become a big Hollywood producer. The plot follows a reverse chronological order, beginning in the present with a successful but cynical Frank — estranged from his old pals Mary and Charlie — and ending with him in college 20 years earlier, with his friends at his side.

Initial audiences had difficulty following the plot’s nontraditional structure and telling the characters apart. The solution, which involved emblazoning each character’s name on brightly colored sweatshirts to clarify when a different actor was playing the role at a different moment in time, has since become an iconic part of the show. Even with the clarification, though, audience confusion prevailed, and the original production closed after only 16 performances.

The show became as well-known for its immediate failure as its actual storyline and musical numbers. Over the years, Merrily We Roll Along has been revised and restaged with Furth and Sondheim’s approval, and each incarnation has introduced changes to the plot or songbook in an attempt to increase clarity. Through Off-Broadway and regional productions, revivals, and concerts, the musical has developed a cult following, lauded by many as being ahead of its time.

Most recently, Merrily We Roll Along received notable attention thanks to Greta Gerwig’s 2017 movie Lady Bird, which features its main characters performing the musical at their high school. Already making things interesting for Linklater’s adaptation is the fact that he cast Beanie Feldstein as Mary, the same part that her Lady Bird character, Julie, also played.

The year before Lady Bird was released, the story of the ill-fated 1981 production was told in a documentary directed by original cast member Lonny Price entitled Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (currently on Netflix). Most of Price’s fellow players, including Jason Alexander, appear in the film recounting their experience and subsequent careers.

The enduring appeal of Merrily We Roll Along is ultimately due to its underlying message about the wonders and dangers of show business. Even with its production issues, the themes that Sondheim, Furth, and original director Harold Prince imported into the 1980s have weight. If news of an upcoming film version in the works can tell us anything, it’s that those themes still resonate today.

Linklater’s 20-year production schedule clearly corresponds to the musical’s two-decade timespan. The strategy of using the same actors — Blake Jenner and Ben Platt join Feldstein as the male leads — over a long period bypasses the usual aging techniques employing CGI or practical effects makeup, not to mention recasting. It’s Linklater’s answer to the problem of the audience not knowing who each character is — though his fix may not be as fun as sweatshirt identification.

With his take on Merrily We Roll Along, which we’ll finally get to see around 2040 (at which time he will be 80 years old), Linklater has been entrusted with a beloved piece of the musical theatre canon. His statement that spending 20 years working on his adaptation “seems the best, perhaps the only way to do this story justice on film” is a hopeful note in extending the show’s legacy decades into the future.

Hannah Payne: An early 20th-century vaudeville performer-turned silent film star in a film student's body. Currently watching too many movies and writing too many essays in Santa Cruz, CA.