More Sondheim and Ben Platt news! Filmmaker Richard Linklater who made “Boyhood” over a 12-year period has announced an even more ambitious project, spending 20 years filming an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Along”, an infamous 1981 flop that has regained critical stature over the years. The reason for doing is that the characters age 20 years over the course of the story, although in the musical the events are told backwards, starting in 1976 and scene-by-scene regressing to 1957.
Based on the 1934 play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman that was itself a commercial failure, the musical version of “Merrily” seemed promising since Sondheim was on a roll reaching greater and greater artistic and critical heights, working once more with Hal Prince (they collaborated on “Company”, “Follies”, “A Little Night Music”, “Pacific Overtures” and “Sweeney Todd”). The story was not exactly uplifting: a group of friends go from lives full of promise and optimism to division and emptiness. However, Sondheim was never into happy endings. And the music of course, was up to his usual standards. But this downbeat story and some other unwise decisions doomed the project: they cast young people (who are just not as good at playing old as the old are at playing young), chose not play out-of-town to work out the kinks, and replaced one of the leads at the last minute. As previews started, they knew they were in trouble and tried to fix things such as having the characters wear t-shirts with their names on them or their role i.e. “Best Pal”. The show ran 52 previews and only 16 performances. This painful episode was chronicled in the 2016 documentary “The Best Worst Thing That Could Have Happened”
However, the production team members and many cast members (including Jason Alexander) survived and continued on, having successful careers. The show itself has been continually tweaked, providing an alluring challenge for directors through the decades who all want to be the one to finally crack “Merrily”. We saw a 2013 production in London directed by Maria Friedman that was excellent and should have transferred to Broadway.
Now comes word of the movie, out of the blue. What’s especially intriguing is that the cast will include the incredibly talented Ben Platt, Beanie Feldstein and Blake Jenner, who will film segments every few years. We won’t see the finished product until at least 2039 (if climate change or some politician hasn’t killed us by then). Will we shrug our shoulders as everyone did in 1981? Time will tell.