Above: The original cast of “Merrily We Roll Along” didn’t have many curtain calls, as detailed in “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” playing Jan. 29 and Feb. 11.
By Rena Gray
“One of the lessons of adulthood is disappointment,” original cast member Abby Pogrebin says in an interview for “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” a documentary directed by Lonny Price on the famous musical flop “Merrily We Roll Along.”
Disappointment is a recurring theme throughout the film as it travels back 35 years to relive the show’s brief history and its effects on those involved.
Coming off the 1979 success of “Sweeney Todd,” director Harold Prince and composer Stephen Sondheim decided it was now or never to take a chance. They collaborated on a new musical with two unconventional elements: The entire cast would be made up of kids, ages 16 to 25, and the play would unfold backward, with the actors starting as middle-aged characters and going back in time.
Unfortunately, the combination confused audience members, and, even after a vigorous rewriting before opening day, the play closed after 16 performances.
The film is narrated by Price (Charley Kringas in the brief run) and features original video and audio footage of rehearsals, interviews and meetings of the great theater minds. With a touch of awe still apparent in his voice, Price describes the intense emotional journey of “Merrily,” from his euphoric, unprecedented casting by his musical idol to the show’s dismal disintegration.
Cast members, directors and producers reflect on the experience in present-day interviews and in many cases acknowledge that the experience still haunts them. Pogrebin, for one, chose to pursue a career in writing instead of the uncertain theater path. But some, like the famous Jason Alexander, persevered.
Price went on to direct musicals and organized a one-night concert revival of “Merrily We Roll Along” in 2002. The show was a hit, receiving the resounding applause originally hoped for, and the play has since been revived many times.
What is best in “Best Worst Thing”? Perhaps it is an honest look at a risk wholeheartedly taken.
“ ‘Merrily,’ ” actress Ann Morrison says, “as painful as it had been … was the most spectacular thing that ever happened because we had musical theater gods, and they became very human very quickly. I realized I could go ahead and make mistakes … and it’s gonna be OK.”