‘Merrily We Roll Along’ Was a Flop in 1981. Now It’s a Tony Winner.

‘Merrily We Roll Along’ Was a Flop in 1981. Now It’s a Tony Winner.

“Merrily We Roll Along,” long considered one of the most storied flops in Broadway history, found redemption on Sunday when it won the Tony Award for best musical revival, belatedly establishing it in the pantheon of Stephen Sondheim masterpieces.

The award, although widely expected, nonetheless represents a miraculous rehabilitation for a troubled title. The original production, in 1981, closed just 12 days after opening, dogged by terrible reviews and reports of audience walkouts. The current production — which features a major movie star, Daniel Radcliffe, alongside two popular Broadway performers, Jonathan Groff and Lindsay Mendez — has been a profitable hit met with near-universal acclaim, sold-out houses and high average ticket prices.

“Merrily,” about the implosion of a three-way friendship over a 20-year period, features music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by George Furth. It is based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and the original production was directed by Hal Prince. The debacle was notorious enough that it became the subject of a 2016 documentary, “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.”

But the show lived on and has been repeatedly reworked in the decades since because, despite its difficult birth, a cadre of passionate fans has long found it profound and, with a widely admired score, worthy of reconsideration.

Much has changed, in addition to rewrites, to transform the show from failure to success. The show unfolds in reverse chronological order, a device that was less familiar to audiences in the early 1980s than it is now. To portray characters who start the show in their 40s and end it in their 20s, the original cast was made up of adolescents and young adults. Later productions have gone the other way, generally relying on actors who are older, which has proved more emotionally effective for theatergoers.

The current production’s starry, appealing cast, who also performed in a 2022 Off Broadway run at New York Theater Workshop, helped make the show a must-see even before audiences discovered that they liked the story and the songs and found the show both affecting and artful.

The Broadway revival opened in October and is scheduled to end its run on July 7. It is a passion project for its director, Maria Friedman, a British theater artist who is steeped in Sondheim’s oeuvre and who has spent decades refining her take on the show. In 1992, she played the female lead in a small production, and since then she has directed it seven times (three times in England, once in Japan and three times in the United States).

“Merrily” has also benefited from a tragedy of timing: The popularity of Sondheim’s work has spiked since his death in 2021.

Reviewing the revival for The New York Times, the chief theater critic, Jesse Green, praised the production, writing, “After 42 years in the wilderness and the death of Sondheim in 2021, ‘Merrily’ is no longer lost. Maria Friedman’s unsparing direction and a thrillingly fierce central performance by Jonathan Groff have given the show the hard shell it lacked. Now heartbreaking in the poignant sense only, ‘Merrily’ has been found in the dark.”

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