|Posted by Don Stitt on March 25, 2017 at 11:00 AM|
This essay is for the fans of the Broadway musical, and specifically, for the fans of Stephen Sondheim.
I have just viewed Lonny Price’s Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, abeautiful documentary of the Broadway premiere of Merrily We Roll Along, and it cut very close to the bone for me. Not just because I was at the first preview of it, six months prior to making my own Broadway debut in the same theatre. (My show was a flop, too.) And not just because I have a number of friends and acquaintances who were in it, including one of the three stars, Ann Morrison. Not even because I show up in a still photograph in the last 35 minutes of it.
What this film achieved for me was the deconstruction of the great myth of Broadway. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen those MGM musicals. How a kid gets a break in a Broadway show, leading him or her to a life of bright lights, glamorous finery, and luxury.
It’s a documentary that shows the gritty reality of a show that failed. It shows that life goes on after the curtain comes down, and that the people involved must find a way to go on.
But it is also a story of redemption.
I will always maintain that Merrily We Roll Along is my favorite Sondheim score, because the songs sound like the pop-inflected Broadway music that people of my generation grew up with. Like Company, with which it shares a director and librettist, the score is snappy. And funny. And touching. But unlike Company, at least for me, it also sizzles. I met Annie Morrison when she auditioned for a production of Godspell that I had been hired to choreograph at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre in 1979. She immediately became a dear friend, someone that I felt strangely close to immediately.
Sitting in the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) that afternoon in the fall of 1981, I was charged with the electricity in the room. My friend had gotten a starring role in the new Sondheim show. My friend had arrived.
But not even Sondheim and Prince were immune to the caprices of Broadway, and the show closed shortly after the opening. Still, over the years, it has been presented all over the world, and the cast album remains one of my favorites.
The star of the show that afternoon was James Weisenbach, but he was summarily replaced by Jim Walton. (Weep not for the former J.W., as he has a successful career in Hollywood as an agent.) The film-maker of the documentary, Lonny Price, was the third star. But Jason Alexander made quite an impression as a Broadway producer.
Lonny’s film relies heavily on interview footage with Sondheim and Prince. (Sadly, librettist George Furth did not live long enough to contribute. I’m sure he would have loved this.)
But unlike similarly-themed documentaries, this one shows us what life was like for the young people who experienced the elation of a new Broadway show, and the disappointment of what life is like when it’s over.
I have seen much of Lonny Price’s directorial work, and have a great deal of admiration for him. (He is currently represented on Broadway with the revival of Sunset Boulevard.) But this was even better than I had hoped for.
If you love Broadway, if you love Sondheim, or even if you have had to reconstruct your own life after a major upheaval and move forward, I think you will find much to appreciate in Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. It features the effervescent of youthful dreams, the wisdom that comes with the passing of the years, and a generous dollop of humanity.
(And, of course, those snappy Sondheim tunes.)