When I interviewed La La Land writer-director Damien Chazelle a couple months ago for Ain’t it Cool News, we discussed one of the film’s themes being the power of rejection and failure as an artist, about how some use it as a supreme motivator, while others allow it to crush them and give up their dreams. The documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened… explores the short-lived production and run of the musical Merrily We Roll Along, which had a Broadway run in 1981 of 16 performances before it was essentially run out of town by critics and audiences alike. What made the production so notable was that it was the last of an otherwise hugely successful run of musicals by songwriter Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince, including Company, A Little Night Music and the game-changing Sweeney Todd.
I’ve seen other behind-the-scenes docs about Broadway shows before but never one about a certifiable flop, made all the more personal in its telling because one of the original cast members, Lonny Price, also directs the film (he went on to continue acting and eventually became a celebrated theater director in his own right). The structure of the musical is important because in many ways, Price cleverly frames his movie in a similar fashion. Merrily begins with its characters as adults, and with each new chapter scene jumps backward in time until we see them finally as graduating high school students filled with dreams, ambition and hope. When we meet them, they’re cynical, bitter and melancholy, so the show peels back the weight the world has put on them, and we’re reminded of the eternal hope of youth. Audiences didn’t understand it; critics found it leaden and tedious. It’s probably of little comfort that the soundtrack album still sold well and the show has been redeemed and revered in more recent productions.
Coincidentally, Sondheim and Prince wanted to cast unknown young actors—with ages ranging from 16-25—to star in Merrily, and the film is essentially the modern versions of them looking back on that more innocent and exciting time in their lives. Many have found careers outside of the arts, but a surprising number have found a way to stay in entertainment to some degree, including one of the show’s principal cast members, Jason Alexander. Thanks to an ABC news team on hand to document the original production, there is a wealth of audition and rehearsal footage for Price to use to give us a rare glimpse into the creative process. Even still, nothing quite prepares us for the scathing reviews and shocking number of walkouts during previews.
Any chance to see Sondheim and Prince at work is well worth it, even for a show that took them decades to revisit and finally appreciate. In the early 2000s, Price reunited with his fellow original cast members to do a concert performance of the show, which by this time, was in full rediscovery mode. Sondheim and Prince attended to watch the performance and finally fell in love with the piece again. The newest footage in the doc involves Price catching up with the cast, seeing where they are today, and as one song in Merrily testifies, their younger selves likely wouldn’t believe the twists and turns their lives took since the show closed.
Best Worst Thing is about dreams being realized and shattered in the space of a few months. Everyone assumed the show would be a hit (or at least good), and that it would launch their careers as stage performers. One of the closing sequences is also one of the most moving. When the ABC footage is discovered after Price had been told two years earlier that it was destroyed, he watches film of himself being interviewed right after being told he was in the cast. His youthful exuberance and starry eyes pop off the screen, as the slightly battle-hardened version of himself today watches the monitor with tears in his eyes. He’s happy that the young Lonny doesn’t embarrass himself in the footage and seems fairly certain that young man would like some of the older version’s work since the early 1980s. Fans of the theater and musicals will rejoice at the level of access and depth of emotion that the film gives us. And it’s a crazy, often surprising story on top of that, so lovers of drama should be satisfied as well.
The film will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, Jan. 13 at 6pm; Sunday, Jan. 15 at 3pm; and Thursday, Jan. 19 at 8pm.