Brand Rejuvenation Lessons from Sondheim’s ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ 

Post by David Nichols, Group Managing Partner, Head of Invention (and secret Sondheim fanatic).

I got some unexpected inspiration on brand rejuvenation during a night at a Broadway show on a visit to New York last week. The show in question is Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along*. The original production opened on Broadway in November 1981 and closed after only 16 performances. Fast forward to today and it is playing again, but this time to rave reviews and packed houses. So, how did it go from flop to hit? Below I explore four ways that producer Sonia Friedman and director Maria Friedman, her sister, have rejuvenated the show.

[*Quick plot summary: Merrily We Roll Along is a witty yet cynical take on the quest for success in show business. The musical sharply critiques the nature of success, highlighting the personal sacrifices and ethical dilemmas faced in the entertainment industry. It centres on Franklin Shepard, a once-idealistic Broadway composer who becomes a successful but morally compromised Hollywood producer.]

Tapping into cultural insight is critical for successful brand rejuvenation. The 1980s were the era of rampant consumerism, big hair and ‘greed is good’. People were not open to the intelligent, witty but cynical analysis of success that Merrily delivers. 

Today, sarcasm and cynicism are proven paths to success in entertainment. This is typified by award winning TV shows Succession and The Morning Show. Also, the success of the witty, cynical film musicals Into The Woods (with James Corden) and Sweeney Todd (with Jonny Depp) has brought Sondheim’s work to a much wider mainstream audience. The cultural context today meant the time was finally ripe to bring back the quick-witted, clever show that is Merrily to the stage.

2. Upgrade the core product

Too often products or services are just ‘launched & left’. Often, real success lies in crafting, refining and course correcting to upgrade the core product or service.

Merrily required just this sort of refinement and upgrading to become a hit show. Maria Friedman first put it on in London’s West End in 2013. The show received great critical acclaim, but did not ‘hit’ commercially. Putting in hard work to refine and perfect the production has paid off. This sort of core refinement required a multitude of small improvements: tweaking the dialogue, orchestrations, set and staging have added up to make it more immediate and accessible. 

3. Drive penetration

Merrily We Roll Along was something of a niche show for its first 42 years. It appealed only to hard core Sondheim fans (like me!) and those in the know. The key to the turnaround was to focus on reaching to a wider mainstream audience. In this way, the producers drove penetration, the key to growing brands of all types. 

4. Leverage celebrity endorsement

Persuading global star Daniel Radcliffe to take on the role of Charley Kringas, one of the three central characters, has been a masterstroke. Crucially, he attracts a whole new audience who otherwise would not think of going to see a Sondheim musical. His social media following alone will have dramatically upscaled the show’s marketing reach, helping drive the penetration referred to earlier. Importantly, his performance is also very, very good – it plays to all his strengths. When the fit is good, like this, celebrity endorsement can work wonders for brands, as we posted on here.


Merrily We Roll Along is a great example of how to rejuvenate a brand, by tapping into cultural trends, upgrading the product and then driving reach. On a personal level, I’ve loved the show for 30 years as a niche secret. I’m delighted that today it’s a hit that many more people can enjoy! Check out the show if you are in New York.

More brandgym blogs on left-field learning from the world of entertainment: