It concerns a man who has lost the idealistic values of his youth. Its innovative structure presents the story in reverse order, with the character regressing from a mournful adult to a young man whose future is filled with promise.
Sondheim retained the basic structure and overall theme of the play in the 1981 musical remake but updated it to encompass the period from 1955 to 1976. Its main protagonist is Franklin Shepard who, in 1976, is a one-time composer of Broadway musicals who has become a highly successful but cynical and jaded film producer who has lost his friends, including longtime collaborator Charley Kringas. Like the play, the musical moves backwards in time showing how Frank has become the man he is today.