Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Hap­pened

BEST WORST THING THAT EVER COULD HAVE HAP­PENED, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 4 chiles

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

Stephen Sond­heim’s mu­si­cal Mer­rily We Roll Along is revered by afi­ciona­dos. Sev­eral of its songs have be­come stan­dards — “Not a Day Goes By,” “Good Thing Go­ing,” “Old Friends,” “Our Time” — and it has tri­umphed in oc­ca­sional pro­duc­tions through the years. But at its 1981 Broadway premiere, it was a flop.

Most fingers point at the book, by Ge­orge Furth, which was based on a play by Ge­orge S. Kauf­man and Moss Hart. It fol­lows the lives of sev­eral mid­dle-aged adults — a Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer, a play­wright, and a the­ater critic — back­ward through two decades of friends, ca­reer choices, suc­cesses, and fail­ures to a time when they were young and ide­al­is­tic. The con­cept proved un­wieldy on the stage, and the sit­u­a­tion was ex­ac­er­bated by the idea, sup­ported by both Sond­heim and di­rec­tor Harold Prince, to cast be­gin­ning ac­tors, all aged be­tween six­teen and twenty-five, to por­tray older char­ac­ters at the out­set and then work their way down to their real ages by the end.

The show opened af­ter a chaotic pre­view run. Re­views were mostly abysmal, baf­fled au­di­ences de­parted in droves, and the show limped through just 16 per­for­mances be­fore it closed. It was trau­matic for all con­cerned. Sond­heim and Prince did not work to­gether again un­til 2003, when Prince di­rected the Chicago premiere of Sond­heim’s Bounce, which never took off. One won­ders what might have lain ahead on Broadway for the team that had pre­vi­ously cre­ated Com­pany, Fol­lies, A Lit­tle Night

Mu­sic, Pa­cific Over­tures, and Sweeney Todd. Be­ing in the show was a dream come true for the orig­i­nal cast mem­bers, who nat­u­rally idol­ized Sond­heim and Prince and were get­ting their first taste of a big-deal Broadway pro­duc­tion. The show’s fail­ure im­pacted them pro­foundly. Af­ter weeks of ex­haust­ing work and artistic eupho­ria, they were forced to con­front the piti­less re­al­ity that also stalks the Great White Way. Among them was Lonny Price, who picked him­self up and went on to be­come a no­table di­rec­tor of many stage pro­duc­tions and now of this grip­ping, of­ten heart-rend­ing doc­u­men­tary. A newly un­cov­ered trove of film from 1981 pro­vides fas­ci­nat­ing glimpses of the show’s au­di­tions and re­hearsals, as well as optimistic mus­ings by the young ac­tors. Price vis­its a num­ber of them 35 years later, when they pon­der the ex­pe­ri­ence with wis­dom born of age and per­spec­tive. Some cast mem­bers went on to no­table per­form­ing ca­reers, in­clud­ing ac­tors Ja­son Alexan­der and Tonya Pink­ins. Some forged their paths in other di­rec­tions. All viewed the show as a cen­tral mo­ment in their lives. Their adult rem­i­nis­cences travel a path back­ward that to some de­gree par­al­lels what Mer­rily We

Roll Along did. They trace a nar­ra­tive-in-re­verse that may have been too com­pli­cated for a Broadway show but that re­veals much about ac­tual lives. — James M. Keller

Broadway ba­bies: Jim Wal­ton, Ann Mor­ri­son, and Lonny Price, from the cast of Mer­rily We Roll Along

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