Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened
Directed by Lonny Price
Opens November 18th
Ah, to be young and headlining a Broadway musical! That was the seeming stroke of luck for the group of teenage and early-twentysomething performers cast in 1981’s time-flipping Merrily We Roll Along, a musicalization of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1934 play of the same name. It was overseen by the Great White Way’s professional power couple Stephen Sondheim (music/lyrics) and Hal Prince (director), then basking in the acclaimed glow of their run from 1970’s Company to 1979’s Sweeney Todd. But the show—which told the story of an artistically inclined trio of friends in reverse, deaging them from cynical adulthood to idealistic youth—was a big old flop. And the disappointment was crushing for many involved.
One of Merrily’s original stars, Lonny Price, takes a bittersweet look back in this slapdash, if still moving documentary (the title is a play on a lyric, “best thing that ever could have happened” from one of the show’s songs). Those looking for a blow-by-blow dissection of the disastrous original production, which occasioned numerous walkouts during previews and ran for only 16 performances, will be disappointed. Price races through the casting, rehearsal, premiere and closing in about a third of the running time, primarily intercutting choppy talking head interviews with footage from an abandoned network documentary about the making of the show.
There are some gems in this section, like the audio recording Price made of Sondheim attending his birthday party (the composer’s gift to Price: a new song to sing in the show), or the grainy video footage from previews of lead cast member James Weissenbach dancing with a jaw-dropping sort of anti-magnetism. (He was eventually replaced, prior to the premiere, by Jim Walton.) But Best Thing doesn’t really build up much emotional steam until its later sections, when Price catches up with his fellow cast members thirty-five years later.
That’s where the themes of Merrily—about life’s hopes, promises, setbacks and failures—dovetail profoundly with reality. None of the actors are in especially dire straits, though even the most successful of them (Seinfeld star Jason Alexander, for one) seem stricken by the wizened melancholy that often comes with age. Price gives each of the actors their own little section, and there’s occasionally a Waiting for Guffman-like quality to the way each person, in a sense, performs their life after Merrily. You can see them attempting to be sardonic or sanguine about the experience, until some very real emotions bubble up and crack the detached veneer. Example: Terry Finn (Gussie Carnegie in the show), whose post-Merrily acting career is, like so many jobbing performers, mired in uncertainty. If her tears at one point are any indication, work (or its lack) often weighs heavily, and there’s a large degree to which Merrily—for her and her castmates, in all its highs and lows—will be as good as it gets.