Exclusive: Look at Rare Merrily We Roll Along Forgotten Relics and Broadway Archives
From George Furth's work session notes to Jason Alexander’s score, look at these rare documents from the famed Sondheim-Furth musical.
Stephen Sondheim-George Furth’s musical Merrily We Roll Along follows the friendship of three old friends over approximately two decades, from first meeting to first shared triumph to first marriages to first fallings out—all in reverse chronological order. Notoriously worked and re-worked prior to its Broadway bow—and again and again since its closing—the musical takes new form with the current production from Roundabout Theatre Company and Fiasco Theatre. Over nearly 40 years, the show’s reputation has grown from "flop” to “cult favorite,” and is now probably rightly called a “classic musical,” though it has never had a lengthy Broadway run. The script and score have been revised many times over the past few decades (including this current Off-Broadway run), and the Billy Rose Theatre Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has preserved at least some part of nearly every version.
READ: What to Expect From the Overhauled, One-Act Merrily We Roll Along Off-Broadway
Here are some highlights from the New York Public Library’s Merrily holdings presented—following the template of the musical—from most recent to earliest:
2014: Streaming Interviews on Digital Theatre+
Library patrons have access to Digital Theatre+ at all NYPL branches. The streaming service provides access to a selection of London Theatre, including the recent West End revival of Funny Girl and the Regent Park revival of Into the Woods (which played at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park in 2012). In 2014, the service briefly provided access to the Menier Chocolate Factory revival of Merrily We Roll Along, and with it presented a study guide and access to interviews about the show with several people involved in the production (including director Maria Friedman). Though the video of the production has been removed from the site, the study guide and interviews are still available.
2000-2013: Merrily We Roll Along Program file
The Theatre Division actively collects programs from major national (and international) theatres. Already the file contains programs from the 2012/2013 Maria Friedman Menier Chocolate Factory London production, the 2012 Encores! concert (featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charlie), and regional productions from the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Watermill’s West Berkshire Playhouse.
1995: George Furth’s Microsoft Word 5.1 Copy of Musical Theatre International’s Rental Libretto
The George Furth Papers include many versions of the libretto of the musical, including a digital Microsoft Word 5.1 file sent to the author by the licensing agency Music Theatre International. Most archival collections that represent work created in the last four decades include at least a few digital files such as this one. These obsolete file formats represent a pressing challenge facing archivists, librarians, and curators today. We not only need to preserve the digital file itself; we also have to preserve ways of accessing these file types.
1989/1990: Arena Stage Production Draft
The first major East Coast revival of Merrily We Roll Along was mounted at Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage. Starring Victor Garber as Frank and a then relatively unknown Marin Mazzie as Beth (Mazzie had previously played Beth in the 1985 La Jolla Playhouse production in California). This version experimented with beginning the show on the rooftop in 1957 (at the “start” of the story) and the ending with the graduation song, “Hills of Tomorrow.”
READ: The 11 Coolest Theatre Relics and Mementos From the New York Public Library’s Past Tony and Olivier Exhibit Curtain Up
1984: Meeting Notes From a Discussion of Revising Merrily for La Jolla Playhouse
George Furth was a prolific note-taker at meetings and his papers thoroughly document the creative process of his teams. In 1984, Furth collaborated on the first major revision of the piece with fellow director/playwright James Lapine (who had just written his own book for a Sondheim musical, Sunday in the Park With George). This version played for around three weeks in June of 1985 at the La Jolla Playhouse. Chip Zien, who had been cast in Lapine’s first two Falsetto musicals, played Charley Kringas. The production did not transfer east, and Lapine (and Zien) went on to work on a new musical with Sondheim: Into the Woods, which premiered at San Francisco’s Old Globe Theatre in December of 1986.
1981: Jason Alexander’s Copy of Sondheim’s Score
The original production of Merrily We Roll Along featured very young cast members, many of whom who went on to prominent careers in theatre. Perhaps the most famous is Jason Alexander, who played the producer Joe. Alexander donated his copy of the score to the NYPL music division. On this page, the first page of the now beloved “Opening Doors” sequence, he has drawn a box around his character’s name.
1981: Polaroids of Eugene Lee’s Set
The design of the original production of Merrily We Roll Along famously changed frequently, becoming increasingly minimalist as it moved towards its (delayed) Broadway open. Some of set designer Eugene Lee's early designs, though, are preserved thanks to associate producer Ruth Mitchell. Mitchell's papers include a set of Polaroid photographs of Lee’s set models, such as this one, depicting a possible set for the opening of the second act.
1981: Cast and Crew Newsletter
In nearly every interview, the original cast of Merrily describes the excitement they felt being in a Broadway musical (a Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince musical, no less!) in their late teens and early 20s. This excitement is obvious in a semi-monthly cast and crew newsletter created by original ensemble member Dave Shine and preserved in the Harold Prince papers at the Library. The newsletter mentions upcoming company birthdays, shares housing needs, and reveals biographical trivia about those in the company.
These newsletters, along with a trove of similar treasures from the archive, will be featured in an exhibition on the career of Hal Prince (opening at Lincoln Center in September 2019). Until then, though, this material (and lots like it) is always available to the general public at the Library for the Performing Arts.
Doug Reside is the Lewis and Dorothy Cullman Curator for the Billy Rose Theatre Division.