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
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