Background and original production
Prince's wife, Judy, had been "nagging" him to do a musical about teenagers, when he recalled the play Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim said that since the play was about friendships, he wrote the songs to be interconnected. The original choreographer, Ron Field, wanted to work with Prince. The decision was made to cast teenagers, and to have tryouts in New York rather than out-of-town. The tryouts, beginning on October 8, 1981, had a poor reception, with audiences walking out. On October 21, 1981 The New York Times reported that the original leading man, James Weissenbach, had been replaced by Jim Walton and the Broadway opening had been postponed. Field was replaced with choreographer Larry Fuller. The opening was delayed a second time, from November 9 to November 16, 1981.
The Broadway production, directed by Prince and choreographed by Fuller, opened on November 16, 1981 at the Alvin Theatre. The show opened to mostly negative reviews. While the score was widely praised, critics and audiences alike felt that the book was problematic and the themes left a sour taste in their mouths. Hampered by the several critical reviews published prior to its official opening, as well as more negative ones published afterwards, it ran for only 16 performances and 52 previews. In his New York Times review Frank Rich wrote "As we all should probably have learned by now, to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one's heart broken at regular intervals." Clive Barnes wrote, "Whatever you may have heard about it – go and see it for yourselves. It is far too good a musical to be judged by those twin kangaroo courts of word of mouth and critical consensus."
At the time, the musical was staged in such a way that the audience was confused and had trouble following what was going on in the story. Consequently, the actors all ended up infamously wearing sweatshirts with their characters' names on the front.
The cast included Jim Walton (Franklin Shepard), Lonny Price (Charley Kringas), Ann Morrison (Mary), Terry Finn (Gussie), Jason Alexander (Joe), Sally Klein (Beth), Geoffrey Horne (Franklin Shephard age 43), David Loud (Ted), Daisy Prince (Meg), Liz Callaway (Nightclub Waitress), Tonya Pinkins (Gwen), and Giancarlo Esposito (Valedictorian). Rosie O'Donnell auditioned; she was 18 years old.
Throughout the years, with Furth and Sondheim's blessing, the musical has been staged with numerous changes. Sondheim has contributed new songs to several of the show's incarnations, most notably "Growing Up".
A production directed by James Lapine opened on June 16, 1985 at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse, where it ran for 24 performances. The cast included John Rubinstein as Franklin Shepard, Chip Zien as Charley Kringas, Marin Mazzie as Beth and Heather MacRae as Mary Flynn. An Arena Stage production, directed by Douglas C. Wager and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, opened on January 30, 1990 at Washington, D.C.'s Kreeger Theater, where it ran slightly more than two months. The cast included Victor Garber, David Garrison, and Becky Ann Baker. In his review of the Arena Stage production, Rich noted that "Many of the major flaws of the 1981 Merrily, starting with its notorious gymnasium setting, have long since been jettisoned or rectified in intervening versions produced in La Jolla, Calif., and in Seattle." He called the score "exceptional."
A revised production, directed by Paul Kerryson, with orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick and musical direction by Julian Kelly, opened on April 14, 1992 at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester, where it ran for three weeks. The cast included Michael Cantwell (Franklin), Maria Friedman (Mary), and Evan Pappas (Charlie), along with Jacqueline Dankworth, Louise Gold and Gareth Snook. A cast recording was released on a single CD in the UK in 1994 and, with extended cuts and dialogue, as a double-CD set in the US in 1997.
An Off-Broadway revival, directed by Susan H. Schulman, opened on May 26, 1994 at the York Theatre in St. Peter's Church, where it ran for 54 performances. The cast included Malcolm Gets, Ron Butler and Michele Pawk. A cast recording was released by Varèse Sarabande.
The West End premiere, directed by Michael Grandage, opened on December 11, 2000 at the Donmar Warehouse, where it ran for 71 performances and eight previews. The cast included Mary Stockley. The production won Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Musical, Best Actor, and Best Actress.
The London Menier Chocolate Factory presented a revival directed by Maria Friedman in November 2012, transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre in London's West End on 1 May 2013. This production won the Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical in the 2012 Critics' Circle Theatre Awards.