Characters in Stephen Sondheim musicals often face the monkey wrenches life throws into the best-laid plans. They’re usually quite stoic about it. As played by the likes of Elaine Stritch, Angela Lansbury, George Hearn, or Yvonne DeCarlo, they suffer and emerge from their follies wiser — yet far from unscathed. They’re rewarded, at least, with some of the greatest songs ever written for the Great White Way.
Director Lonny Price knows all this, so he crafts Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened — a new film with an unwieldy title — as if the musical he’s documenting were a Sondheim character itself. The piece in question, 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along, certainly fits the description: Its high hopes as the follow-up to Sondheim’s smash Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street were dashed when it closed after 16 performances. The bumpy production permanently severed the relationship between Sondheim and director Hal Prince, after their 1970s series of Tony–winning masterpieces, including Company, Follies, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney. Critics and audiences thought Merrily We Roll Along was so bad that even Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett wouldn’t sell it as a pie.
In Best Worst Thing, Price, who played one of the three leads in Merrily, recruits his former castmates, book writer George Furth, Sondheim, and Prince to recount how the show’s “Grand Opening, Grand Closing”–style run affected their lives. Best Worst Thing opens with Price going through old footage of an interview he gave once he was cast in the role of Charley. As the younger Price excitedly babbles on about hopes and dreams and the like, his older counterpart looks on with bemusement. This juxtaposition evokes the musical’s gimmick: Its teenage leads played their characters through middle age, but they age in reverse over the course of the play.
The telling of the story backward comes from Furth’s source material, the 1934 George S. Kaufman–Moss Hart play Merrily We Roll Along. That too was a flop, but nobody could ever accuse Sondheim and Hal Prince of doing things the easy way. “I can’t do simple,” Sondheim complains in the film. “I’ve been doing complex for so long.” Before Merrily, he also hadn’t done anything using young people, so this endeavor presented an intriguing challenge. He wrote songs for characters who would start out jaded and end the play full of innocence, not knowing the horrible fates that awaited them. The problem was that neither the audience nor the critics were willing to buy into the risky notion of seventeen-year-olds playing battle-scarred middle-aged people for the entire first act.
Price’s co-stars — including Tonya Pinkins, Ann Morrison, Jim Walton, and Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander — dish the dirt in both their middle-aged and youthful guises. (Another famous co-star, Giancarlo Esposito, is inexplicably missing from the current day footage.) Sondheim, Prince, and Furth discuss their creative processes and why they think the show failed. These stories make up the bulk of this film, which is sure to satisfy theater wonks, Sondheim fans, curious moviegoers and lovers of Broadway. All others need not apply. As for Merrily We Roll Along itself, like a typical Sondheim protagonist, it shook off its initial disastrous mistakes and went on with the second act of its life as a now-respected, 35-year old cult classic.
Lonny Price’s Best Worst Thing That Could Have Happened plays Sunday at the New York Film Festival