Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along is back on Broadway in it's first-ever revival. With a box office that is already regularly placing it amongst Broadway's top sellers, the revival appears to be a sure-fire hit. But then, that's a first for this show too.
Lonny Price, the musical's first Charley Kringas (at the tender age of just 22), remembers director Hal Prince coming backstage opening night. “I’m sorry. I wanted to give you a hit. I didn’t give you a hit. I think I gave you a good show, but I wanted to give you a hit,” Price remembers him saying. "That was very moving, that he cared about me, and the company. He must have been so hurt—it was painful for all of them." The original production opened November 16, 1981 and closed November 28—16 performances total.
The show had come with the highest of expectations baked in. Prince and Sondheim had spent the previous decade collaborating on a string of musicals that quite literally changed the face of musical theatre. Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd had more than made the notion of a Sondheim-Prince musical an event on the Main Stem. If those productions weren't necessarily the biggest money makers in Broadway history, they were all major critical successes and Tony Awards darlings.
And then there was Merrily We Roll Along. In some ways, the show, based on an obscure 1932 Kauffman and Hart play, was amongst the pair's most daring concepts. It tracks a trio of young friends from their bright and eager early careers as 20-somethings to their 40s, when all three have found themselves discontented and disconnected. And it tells that story backwards, beginning at the end and ending at the beginning.
That concept proved to be difficult for audiences to wrap their heads around, particularly because Prince decided to cast the show with younger actors in their 20s (modern productions, including the current Broadway revival, tend to split the difference between casting younger actors and middle aged actors). Following a tumultuous preview period that saw major changes to the script, the scrapping of the entire costume design, and actor replacements, disastrous reviews sealed the show's fate. It would be Sondheim and Prince's first real flop together, and essentially served as the end of their professional collaboration. [The two collaborated on a musical called Bounce decades later at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, though it too was unsuccessful and Prince left the project. That show, later renamed Road Show, has yet to make it to Broadway.]
The entire experience was no doubt traumatic for its original cast, which included several actors who have gone on to illustrious careers in the theatre (Jason Alexander, Liz Callaway, Donna Marie Asbury, David Loud, Tonya Pinkins, Daisy Prince, and Jim Walton were all in the original company).
And then there's Price, who created the role of ever virtuous writer Charley Kringas. A true theatre kid and devotee of Sondheim and Prince's musicals, Merrily meant a great deal to him, and not just because he was in it. He went on to enjoy a successful Broadway acting career in the years following Merrily's failure, but his career's greatest highs came after shifting things a bit and becoming a director. Price has directed such Broadway favorites as Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill and A Class Act (in which he also starred), and a number of concert productions of his beloved Sondheim-Prince musicals for the New York Philharmonic and Chicago's Ravinia Festival. He also revisited his experience in Merrily directing and producing the 2016 documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (a must-see for any Merrily fan—it's available for digital purchase and rental on most video-on-demand platforms).
We caught up with Price over the phone recently just hours after he got to see the current Broadway production—which opened October 10 (to markedly more positive reviews) at the Hudson Theatre. It stars Daniel Radcliffe (as Kringas), Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez; Maria Friedman is at the helm. Price talked about his reactions to this new revival and if he'll ever direct his own version of Merrily We Roll Along (Price is currently readying the upcoming tour of the revised Peter Pan). The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Tell us a little bit about what Merrily meant and means to you.
Lonny Price: I'm so proud of it. I feel so honored to have been a part of it. I'm proud of a lot of my work, but it’s DNA for me, that show. And that time was so defining of myself and certainly my career. It was a combination of all my childhood dreams. It's never really far from me, the show or the themes of it—how did you get here from there, and just trying to live a life of integrity and to hold on to dreams. Dreams are expensive. You pay a price for keeping them, and you pay a price for giving them up. I think about the philosophy of the show a lot.
It's almost surreal to have worked with those men and to get to do that material, which is just so extraordinary—and some of it written on me! "Franklin Shepard Inc." came in three days before previews began. Hal spent five weeks saying, "And then he sings a song here and let’s move on." And then Steve wrote that song. You feel like the greatest tailor in the world just built you a gold suit. He knew that I was good with a lot of words. I had three good notes, and he kept hitting him.
It was just such a miracle to me, that whole experience is really a miracle. I look back on it with great love and fondness and gratitude. It was obviously not successful. But it was just a fantastic time.
It feels like you were unusually aware of the gravitas of that experience for someone your age.
Oh, sure. I mean, they were my heroes. I was a gofer in Hal Prince’s office on Pacific Overtures. I was going to Performing Arts High School and I used to go and stuff envelopes and just be around. I got to be at the recording session of Pacific Overtures and saw it out of town. Hal opened the door to the theatre and said, "Come on in." It was just the greatest gift in the world. I revered these men to probably a degree that was not healthy. They were heroes, giants, everything to me, so to get to work with them and then to originate a part in one of their shows, and a lead, introducing songs and hearing them for the first time—and Steve writing one for me. It was just really heady stuff. But I never took it for granted. Ever.
What was it like for that experience to end with failure? Did your admiration for Sondheim and Prince make you feel responsible in any way?
It was devastating, utterly devastating. The hardest part was that I didn’t get to do it anymore. I loved doing it so much, and I didn’t get to have a run at it. The rug was sort of pulled out from under us, and that was really hard.
I don’t remember feeling responsible, though. In the film, Terry Finn says that I did feel partially responsible. But I don’t remember that part of it. I just remember feeling utterly sad and depressed. And look, you know I was very lucky. Later that season, I got to do Master Harold …and the Boys. I got a lead in a gorgeous play. That helped heal the wounds. But interestingly enough, when I did Master Harold, the night the critics were there, I wasn’t very good. I think part of it was that they had taken away, or they had hurt something that I loved. I couldn’t be vulnerable in front of them. I felt wounded by the demise of the show and at the time felt they were responsible in part for its failure, at least with the public. We got such terrible reviews. I was very wounded by that. But you get over it.
I don’t read reviews now. I didn’t read reviews then, because I’ve always thought that’s not helpful for me. But I knew they were terrible. It was very clear that they were just bad.
Do you think the reviews were wrong?
The score was always just dazzling and brilliant. Coming after Sweeney Todd, when we heard those songs, those Jule Styne-style big tunes—it’s just so thrilling. We all knew the score was amazing. Looking back now, Hal often said that he didn’t know what it should look like. He had wanted to do it like Our Town, with ladders and clothes on racks, very simply. But he chickened out because people were paying a then-astronomical $35 a ticket [Editor’s note: Adjusted for inflation, that’s roughly $119] and they wanted spectacle. I don’t think Hal was ever pleased with the physical production, and it wasn’t good.
But the show wasn’t done. It wasn’t finished yet. Had they had more time, I think they would have made it easier for the audience. It’s interesting—I saw the show last night, and everyone knows now that it goes backwards. They’re aware of what it’s doing and the score is so beloved as it deserves to be. We had to keep putting projections in saying what year it was. In that way, it was ahead of its time. Just think of all the innovation they did over the years, and then they decide to do a show that goes backwards. It’s sort of a mad idea, and a brilliant one. I think people have caught up with it in some way.
But that’s also not to say that the original production was flawless. It was deeply flawed, but it was also beautiful. I think anybody who got to [the musical's final songs—the original production infamously saw lots of audience walkouts during performances] "Opening Doors," and "Our Time," we were very close to the age of the characters. It was intensely moving in a way that was very pure. Hal’s idea was always that he wanted kids because by the time you got to the end of the show, you would think, "They won’t make the mistakes of these characters." It’s a big, meta idea that was really hard to convey. I still think the boldness of it was pretty exciting. And I’m sorry it didn’t come off in the way he had wanted it to.
As I was leaving the performance I saw, I overheard someone saying they loved it but wanted to see it in the "right" order, which, as you know, is a thing people say occasionally. But that’s always felt a little wild to me because it would absolutely not work and wouldn’t even be the same story.
I agree. Completely. There would be no hope. It would become a story of people who mostly lose their values and their relationships. How depressing is that? You watch characters become a sadly drunken woman, a man who is unhappy and bitter and successful, and a self-righteous prick who doesn’t have his friends. I think it would be a disaster.
I know people who have done it, who rehearse it that way to help the actors with continuity, but I think it’s always going to be a peculiar and beautiful, gorgeous puzzle. Some people are going to get on the ride, and some people are—I think this version many more people are going to get on the ride than they ever have, which is a testament to Maria [Friedman]’s work and those three wonderful actors, who I think are just sensational.
Lindsay’s just doing one of the great performances ever. And Daniel—so good. Watching him, I didn’t miss me at all. The complexity and the layers and the nuances of the way they’re playing it, and they found all the humor. I believed they were those friends and they had private jokes. Just spectacular.
How has your reaction to the show changed as you’ve gotten older?
When I was younger, I thought Charlie was right. Now I think, "It’s his life. He’s allowed to do whatever he wants. Who’s to say that someone is wasting their talent," or whatever. We only get one life to live, and he chose something that he chose. To say that it’s selling out…I don’t know that we’re allowed to say that about other people. We’re not inside their heads, we don’t know what they want and what’s useful for them. That’s changed over the years. I think Charley’s a little self-righteous, and it’s none of his business what that other man decides to do with his life.
How did you feel when Sondheim and Furth started to revise the show?
Well, they’ve been revising it forever. They don’t license our production—Steve said that’s never to be sanctioned again. As soon as we closed, they started revising it. In a way, watching it—it’s so different that it’s not the show we did. The bones of it are, but it’s dressed quite differently. It’s complicated for me to watch it, for all of that original cast, because it’s part of our history and our DNA. It’s an overwhelming series of emotions. I’m not saying that they’re bad—they’re complicated. Mostly I’m thrilled that people love it, that something that I love very much is now being loved by a lot of people, many more people.
Is there anything in particular that you miss from the original version?
I love “The Hills of Tomorrow.” I liked that frame of the graduation and stuff, but that was our production. When I watched it last night, I didn’t miss it. I thought, "OK, that’s just not what it is anymore." I love the song “Rich and Happy,” but “That Frank” is exactly right for this production. Some of the songs I missed. I think “Growing Up” is one of Steve’s best. It’s gorgeous. It’s a lot of contradictions for me watching it, missing some of it, and then delighted that it’s the new things. People ask me what I think of the show, and I always think I’m the wrong person to ask because it’s so complicated.
Is that complication why we haven’t seen a Lonny Price-directed revival of Merrily?
I think the film is my version of it, that it’s as close as I’m probably going to get. But never say never. I might take a stab at it someday if I can find some distance. I used to say I will never do it because it’s just too much. But someday…you never know.
I had that reaction watching the documentary, particularly the point where Terry Finn talks about looking at young actors and thinking they don’t know what they’re building.
Yes. They don’t know what they’re building, that every choice you make is going to lead you someplace. The innocence of starting your life and not knowing what’s in store. It’s why I love teaching. I think about the students and I wonder what’s going to happen. It’s such an open book for them.
You say in the documentary that Hal hoped the kids of the original cast would learn the show’s lessons. What did you learn and what have you applied to your own career?
I lived a little bit like Charley. I didn’t want to go out to California and be on television. I wanted to be in the theatre. I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to make my life in the theatre, so that was being true to me.
On another level, I learned how to be in the theatre from Hal and Steve. I learned respect. They respected the stage doorman the same way they respected Angela Lansbury. Hal was always about everyone’s important and everybody’s a part of this. You need everybody—we’re all in together. These two men just had enormous respect for everybody in their orbit. And everybody working—we were kids!—and we were treated like we were big stars.
I remember “Franklin Shepard Inc.” came in late and Steve didn’t feel satisfied with it. He came up to me after a matinee and said, “I know. I’m working on it. I’ll make it better.” And I thought, "He’s apologizing to me, 22 year-old me, saying I want to do better for you." I was taken aback and moved and didn’t know what to do with that. Hal came back to me opening night and he said, “I’m sorry. I wanted to give you a hit. I didn’t give you a hit. I think I gave you a good show, but I wanted to give you a hit.” That was very moving, that he cared about me, and the company. He must have been so hurt—it was painful for all of them.
What does it feel like now with the show finally a big hit on Broadway, but with both of them gone?
I was missing them a lot last night. It was Hal’s idea—the show wouldn’t exist except for Hal. His wife, Judy said “What about a show for kids,” but he found this one. I feel sad that Steve is not seeing it triumphant. And that’s a shame because he deserved to see it finally be accepted and loved. It’s bittersweet that they weren’t around to share in this.