Longtime readers of this blog know that I am an aficionado of Stephen Sondheim. The first original-cast album of his that I ever bought—and took to heart—was not one of his Broadway successes (e.g., A Little Night Music), but instead Merrily We Roll Along. In prior posts, I considered this 1981 musical’s disastrous initial Broadway run (so bad that the lyricist-composer did not work again with longtime producer-director Harold Prince for another 20 years), and reviewed a wonderful revival of this work, four years ago, by the New York musical series Encores.
Even for those like me who are at least somewhat familiar with this decidedly mixed history, however, the 96-minute documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened yielded many surprising insights. I missed a performance at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village a few weeks ago that featured several members—or, I should say, survivors—of the 1981 run. But I was fortunate enough to catch up on it at an afternoon showing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center last week.
One of those survivors was Lonny Price, one of the three original leads, narrates and directs this retrospective in a spirit that, like an earlier Sondheim song, might be termed “sorry-grateful.” Several years into making the film, he learned that footage long since believed lost—tapes for a “making-of” TV documentary that was shelved after the musical’s failure—had been rediscovered. That, together with some private footage (including a priceless scene where Sondheim, at a birthday party, previews a song that will appear in the show) allows for a contrast that mirrors the perspective of the musical itself: the sunlit hopes of theater-mad youth versus middle-aged disappointment and disillusionment.
Although both Sondheim and Prince open up about why they believe the show closed after only 16 performances (critics could not abide the two collaborators being both mavericks and successes, Sondheim says), it is fellow cast members who offer Price the most fascinating insights.
Some went on to prominent careers in entertainment, including “Seinfeld”s Jason Alexander, Tony Award-winning actress Tonya Pinkins, singer Liz Callaway, actor Giancarlo Esposito, and Jim Walton, a longtime Broadway fixture. Others struggled on the margins of the industry or even dropped out altogether, such as Ann Morrison, the principal female cast member; Jim Weissenbach, the show’s original Franklin Shepard, who now runs a talent agency; and Abby Pogrebin, who became a CBS producer and successful author. No matter how they turned out, a sense of acrid failure over the show’s failure clings, to one extent or another, to virtually everyone.
While Weissenbach reacts, with quiet bewilderment, to his firing and replacement in the principal role by Walton (claiming that neither Prince nor Sondheim gave him any sense he was doing anything wrong beforehand), the dominant note throughout is poignant, sometimes painful or even teary-eyed, particularly in the cases of Morrison, Pogrebin, and Price.
The musical’s previews—so disastrous that actors were sometimes singing to the backs of audience members heading for the exits—necessitated a blizzard of major last-minute changes unusual even for a major Broadway opening. Partly because of the decision to take the show straight to Broadway without an out-of-town tryout, rumors of problems multiplied, and critics pounced at the opening, ignoring larger facts in front of them: the brilliance of Sondheim’s score and the marvelous young talents in front of them.
Against all odds, the musical has gone on to a wondrous afterlife, continually performed around the world—including, the film’s postscript notes, by children of the original cast members. But it’s hard to see how any of these performances could have topped the 2002 concert revival that reunited the original cast members. The exhilaration from that event, still palpable onscreen here, was such that Sondheim and Prince even reunited for a new musical (alas, also not successful), Bounce.
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened has been out a couple of months already and therefore likely to appear on DVD, public television or cable station soon. If you have a chance, I strongly urge you to see this look at a musical that became famous for its spectacularly public death, only to enjoy an unexpectedly triumphant afterlife.