You don’t have to be a fan of Broadway musicals to love every minute of Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. This story of one of the most crushing flops to ever hit the Great White Way speaks to the ambition that drives all of us, even sometimes into a brick wall. Back in 1981, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and producer-director Harold Prince were the toasts of Broadway with such hits as Company, Follies, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd. They could do no wrong – that is until their new collaboration, Merrily We Roll Along, closed after only 16 performances. It’s easy to make a movie about dealing with success. But what about failure? How do you ride out that storm?
That’s Topic A in this mesmerizing documentary from director Lonny Price, a Jewish kid from New Jersey when he auditioned for his idols and won a role in Merrily. The material was based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart that told its story backwards, beginning with its cast as jaded adults and working back to their optimistic youth. Writer George Furth updated the story for the present and set it in the theater world, but the decision to cast it with actors, ranging from 16 to 25 in age, came back to bite the creators on the ass. Audiences felt confused at seeing kids playing adults and bolted for the exits. Critics grumbled along with them.
What makes this movie work better than anyone expected was the discovery of footage from an ABC special (it never ran) about the making of the show. This allows Price to show himself and the other actors being interviewed at the full exuberance of youth, as they audition and rehearse. Present-day interviews with Sondheim and Prince offer a resonant contrast between then and now. Jason Alexander, one of the actors in the original cast who went on to global fame as George on Seinfeld, recalls his fanboy excitement at meeting Sondheim and Prince. “I mean who else could have been in that room? Christ and Moses?!?”
One of most poignant sections of the film involves the recording the cast album of Merrily the day after the show closed. Those faces, those voices, the bittersweet sadness and the force of burgeoning talent is all captured in Sondheim’s immortal score, which has lived on long after the show closed. The lyrics to one song, “Our Time,” cut deep:
“It’s our time, breathe it in/
Worlds to change and worlds to win/
Our turn, we’re what’s new/
Me and you, pal, me and you.”
Best Worst Thing brims over with moments of humor and heartbreak that reflect the feeling of knowing “we’re what’s new.” This movie is more than good, pal. It’s indispensable.