Film Review: Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened

Combining probing contemporary interviews and archival footage made during the making of the 1981 Broadway musical Merrily We Roll Along, this Lonny Price-directed documentary explores the impact of the Sondheim show’s shocking failure on its cast.
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A reflective documentary, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened may disappoint serious musical-theatre connoisseurs looking for new information or analysis concerning its subject, the 1981 Broadway musical flop Merrily We Roll Along, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and direction by Hal Prince. Constructed mainly from contemporary interviews in which the musical’s original cast and creative team reminisce, the film also incorporates archival video recordings documenting the creation of the musical from its conception, through auditions and rehearsals, to previews and opening night. (That footage had been shot for an ABC-TV special about the musical, which never came to fruition.) Yet, directed by Lonny Price, who originated one of the show’s leading roles, the slow-paced documentary proffers no fresh insights about the now-legendary musical itself, but rather focuses on the psychological impact the original production’s failure had on its cast.

Merrily We Roll Along unfolds its story of three middle-aged friends—a composer, a lyricist and a playwright—in backwards chronology, opening when the trio is in their 40s and ending as they graduate from high school. Expectations for the show’s success were altitudinous, as Sondheim and Prince had just enjoyed a decade of acclaimed collaborations, from Company (1970) to Sweeney Todd (1979). Shockingly, preview audiences walked out in droves and the influential first-night reviewers panned it. The general gist of the criticism revolved around the choice to cast the show with young actors (ages 16 to 25) and have them play their characters at all the different ages, rather than using older actors throughout, or a combination of both. The production was deemed unconvincing and closed after only 16 performances.

The musical takes a hard look at what happens to the dreams and optimism of youth as we journey into the often-unexpected places life takes us. Borrowing that theme to scaffold his film, Price collected a handful of his fellow cast members who share their memories of the painful Merrily experience and the trajectories their lives took afterward. Much is made of how euphoric these young actors were at being cast in the show and what great expectations they had for it as a launch pad for their future careers. When the show flopped, given the prior successes of its creative team and that the criticism leveled at the show pinpointed its casting, the effect on the young actors was significant—sure their careers were about to skyrocket one moment, then “responsible” for a Sondheim failure the next. Much of the film’s “So how did this make you feel?” talk is somber, and the “What are they doing now?” segments resemble TV human-interest profiles, from which we learn nothing novel about the ups and downs of building a career in show business. “Seinfeld” fans, however, will relish the considerable screen time devoted to Jason Alexander. (Yes, he was an original cast member and achieved success on Broadway before his television stardom.)

Also included is footage from 2002, when original cast members reassembled to perform a concert-version of the show, which by then had become a cult classic. So the big question Broadway buffs will wish Price’s film had tackled is how did the show become so revered? What changes were made to the musical’s book and staging in subsequent productions? Who supervised those alterations and how did they contribute to the show’s eventual popularity? Or did the critics just get it wrong initially? Viewers are left to figure this out for themselves. Happily, that provides an excuse to revisit the original cast album and revel in the emotionally wide-ranging, thoughtful, toe-tapping Sondheim score.

Click here for cast and crew information.