If Boyhood taught us one thing about Richard Linklater, it’s that the Oscar-nominated director is not afraid of long-term commitment. Linklater spent 12 years filming that hyperreal bildungsroman about a family whose members aged in real time: pre-adolescent actor Ellar Coltrane transformed into a young man, young-Ethan Hawke became old-Ethan Hawke, and Patricia Arquette went from off-beat film ingenue to primetime paranormal crime fighter. But according to Collider, the 12-year shooting timeline of Boyhood was just a dry run for his next film project: an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s beloved musical flop, Merrily We Roll Along, starring Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein and shot over the course of 20 years.
Even for the director of Boyhood, a film shot over two decades is an ambitious leap of faith that exposes Linklater and producer Jason Blum as incorrigible optimists. First, Linklater has to assume that there will still be an inhabitable planet and not unrecognizably ravaged by climate change or nuclear fallout (or both!) Second, with budding stars like Platt—who will star in the upcoming Ryan Murphy series The Politician—and Feldstein of Lady Bird and Booksmart fame, you never know how scheduling is going to work out. And none of this even begins to take into account the troubles and complications that have plagued every production of the film’s source text since its premiere in 1981.
Unlike Boyhood, which progressed linearly in time like real life, Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along, like the 1934 Hart and Kaufman play it’s based on, progresses backwards. The plot plays a little like A Star Is Born in reverse, beginning in 1974 with each of its three protagonists, Frank, Charley, and Mary already successful, middle-aged and inevitably miserable. The show spends the duration filling in the details of how each character got to the that point, ultimately ending at a roof party in the 1950s when each is just starting out, filled with the optimistic joy and vigor of youth. To this day, Sondheim’s version of the show, though admirably ambitious, has never been met with a totally positive response from critics or audiences, even as the show’s troubled history, which was expertly detailed Lonny Price’s critically lauded documentary, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, has turned it into a cult curiosity.
According to Collider, Linklater is indeed sticking to the show’s reverse chronology, meaning that he won’t film the beginning of the musical for at least another couple decades. Whether you’re a fan of Merrily We Roll Along, a Linklater dedicate, or are just excited by the ambitious concept, the director gives you no choice but to share in his optimism that, even though there’s a chance that the globe might be reduced to a broiling sphere of molten ash within the next 20 years, there’s also a chance —slim, but real—that there will also be a movie house screening the best version of Merrily We Roll Along that no one has ever seen yet.