On November 16, 1981, after weeks of hectic previews, “Merrily We Roll Along,” Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince’s latest collaboration, opened at Broadway’s Alvin Theater. And shockingly, closed after just 16 performances, stunning the two “theater gods”–and the bulk of the theater community–who had grown accustomed to their critical and financial success.
Lonny Price, a suburban kid who “didn’t fit in” found that theater was a “world he could disappear into.” At 15, he wrote to Prince and was offered a job as an office boy. At 22, a Juilliard dropout, he was cast as Charley Kringas, one of the three leads in Prince and Sondheim’s radical restructuring of George S. Kaufman and Moss Heart’s comedy. His poignant and entertaining new documentary, “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” world premiering in the Special Events section, tells “Merrily’s” 35-year story, with archival and contemporary footage, photographs and interviews. The lives in the play, the lives of the players and the life of the play itself have deep and fascinating parallels.
Director and producer Prince, to emphasize the play’s theme of “youth and what happens to it” reversed the play’s chronology for the musical, with the characters growing younger in each scene, beginning as cynical and bitter adults and ending as bright-eyed and optimistic high school students. The casting was equally radical, with Prince, Sondheim and their team choosing largely unknown actors aged 16 to 25.
The thrill for the young actors of being selected from a crowd of 800 hopefuls and working with their idols in what Prince calls “the best rehearsal experience of my life” colored the following decades. In interviews, with varying degrees of longing, cast members talk about their lives. Tonya Pinkins, Jim Walton, and Price himself carved out successful careers in the theater. Terry Finn acted in movies. Ann Morrison moved to Florida and lovingly worked with mentally disabled adults. Abby Pogreben became a journalist and author. And Jason Alexander (another suburban misfit), who won a Tony at 29, wonders what a theater career might have been like if there hadn’t been a George Costanza.
Twenty-one years after its disastrous Broadway run, Price, working for Musical Theater Works, staged a concert version of “Merrily” as a benefit with most of the original cast. Sondheim and Prince (“one of the most exciting nights of my life”) were in the audience, where people were exuberantly clogging the aisles (rather than fleeing up them, as in 1981). The panned play, with its well-known and beloved original cast album, recorded the day after the final performance, had become a beloved classic.
“Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened” will screen on Sunday, October 9 at 6:00 pm (with Stephen Sondheim, Lonny Price and other special guests in person), Monday, October, 10 at 6:30 pm and Sunday, October 16 at 12:15 pm.