I discovered ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ not from an epiphany. There was a time I was reading everything I could about Broadway after I first arrived in the United States in 1984. Of course, I had discovered Stephen Sondheim and his work. I listened to his shows on cassette, and there was just something that attracted me to ‘Merrily We Roll Along.’ I had read that it was a massive flop, but the score resonated a lot with me. I remember rewinding ‘Old Friend’ over and over again on my Walkman, and I remember mornings walking to my High School listening to ‘Good Thing Going.” Maybe because I was a teenager then, and I could somehow relate to this young people singing this very adult score.
Cut to now. I have since then seen quite a few productions of Merrily, and while I still marvel at its glorious score, I am jaded enough to realize it is a problematic show. The book is still clunky, and I know Sondheim won’t let it be touched. Still, though, there’s something about the show that just fascinates. It’s quite layered I always see something new in it, and it can be interpreted and updated with so many different eyes.
So it’s with great fascination that I watch Lonny Price’s ‘The Best Worst Thing That Could Have Happened.” I have had a tempestuous relationship with this film – it was never shown in any movie theater near me, and I was obsessed with finding it, until I came to a point when I just gave up and told myself to wait for it on video. And of course, it is now streaming on Netflix, and couldn’t be more accessible.
And it’s glorious – telling the story of the young cast that got thrown into the wolves, meaning Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince. Imagine being a kid and being chosen to be in the company of those two mean. We see how their wide eyed innocence marred by the euphoria of being in the show, and the high fail when the show closed after only sixteen performances. I knew a lot of the details in the documentary, but to see these people talking and reliving their experiences gave the story with such a human angle that it touched me. We get to see what happened to some of these cast members after the fall – how Jason Alexander became a household name; how Ann Morrison ended up in Sarasota, Florida teaching disabled children; how Lonny Price ended up directing Sondheim’s later output. By the time we get to their reunion concert in 2002, and how they go back to their old Alvin Theater dressing rooms, nary an eye would be dry. This documentary is in itself a journey, and it is one of the most fulfilling things I have ever seen in a long long time.