A love letter to the theater—and a deeply poignant one at that—Lonny Price’s sentimental documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened… is a bittersweet gem. Ostensibly a look back at the making of Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince’s short-lived 1981 Broadway musical Merrily We Roll Along, the film is also a meditation on youthful optimism, broken dreams, and the theater as a welcoming home for people who have a hard time fitting in anywhere else. But first a little backstory….
As anyone with a passing familiarity with the Great White Way knows, Sondheim and Prince were the twin colossi of Broadway by the beginning of the ’80s. Sondheim was, of course, the gifted lyricist behind West Side Story, Gypsy, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Prince was a prodigious producer and director with a string of hits under his belt that included Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and Zorba. Together, they had teamed up to deliver Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music. Two pretty good runs, those. Just prior to embarking on Merrily, they’d created the masterpiece Sweeney Todd. So when they came up with the idea for a musical about a trio of jaded middle-aged characters whose lives unfold backwards, ending at the beginning with a glimpse of their idealistic younger selves, it seemed like a can’t-miss proposition. Of course, in the theater, there’s no such thing.
Price, the director of this documentary, was one of the three young leads of Merrily back in 1981. And the film opens with him tearing open mountains of cardboard boxes that contain reels of film showing the cast and crew giving interviews at the outset of the production 35 years earlier. They were once full of hope, dreams, and indomitable optimism, much like the characters in the musical they were making. Price interviews many of the now-middle-aged cast members (including Seinfeld‘s Jason Alexander, who at the time was self-described chubby Jewish theater geek from New Jersey) about what they recall from that heady time—a time when their careers were just beginning and seemed limitless. These interviews are both funny and rueful. For many of them, their Broadway careers began and ended with Merrily‘s notorious flop. Yet they still speak of Sondheim and Prince with starry-eyed hero worship, even if their impressions are now clouded by the fact that even these giants could be brought low. All of them get to sketch out the paths that led them to the theater—about being outcasts in high school at the time they were cast and how Broadway was like a safe haven for them, a Shangri La of acceptance and kindred spirits they’d never dreamed existed. It felt like family, like home. As Alexander says, “I was such a lonely kid until I got onstage.”
The first half of the film traces the musical’s auditions, rehearsals, delays, and retoolings, leading up to its disastrous opening that came with waves of walk-outs. Former New York Times theater critic, Frank Rich, is on hand to confess that his take-down of the show was “a painful piece to write.” The second half has a hard time matching the thrilling tick-tock, slow-motion trainwreck aspect of the first, trying to make the case that Merrily was misunderstood, ahead of its time, and that the theater world felt the need to take the successful Sondheim-Prince duo down a peg. That’s when Price follows some of the key cast members to check in with where their lives went after the show closed after a mere 16 performances. For some, the show’s failure still stings enough after 35 years to prompt tears. They’re still trying to make peace with it as they look at footage of their younger selves at the moment when the universe was wide open before them. In the end, The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened… is not just about a sure-fire hit that missed. Those stories are a dime a dozen. It’s really about the knocks that life hands you and how you pick yourself up and dust yourself off afterwards. And, on that score, it’s a triumph. A-