“One of the lessons of adulthood is disappointment,” says a bleary-eyed Abigail Pogrebin as she muses on her time in the original Broadway production of “Merrily We Roll Along,” Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince’s notorious flop that ended their decades-long collaborative friendship and the subject of Lonny Price’s nostalgic documentary, “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” which debuted at the New York Film Festival.
Price, (whom “Dirty Dancing” fans may recognize as the guy who put Baby in the corner), was part of the original cast of the musical. Based on the popular 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, “Merrily” tells the life stories of its three main characters in reverse order; they start out bitter and jaded adults, and by the show’s end have reverted to hopeful and starry-eyed kids. Prince, the legendary Broadway producer and the first to combine producing with directing, had the idea of casting the show with kids, as he calls them. When the open casting call went out for 16 to 24 year-olds to star in a new Prince/Sondheim production, starstruck young hopefuls poured in from far and wide for the chance to audition for their idols.
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Those “kids,” now comfortably middle-aged, make up the bulk of the onscreen interviews in “Best Worst Thing,” aside from Prince and Sondheim’s. Thankfully, the film tells its own story chronologically; from audition nerves to the high of rehearsals, and finally the show’s damning critical failure and heartbreaking closing after just sixteen performances. “To be in that room at all blew my mind,” says Price in voiceover, whose unique position as interviewer and subject adds a personal touch to the film without feeling too precious or self-serving.
Peppered with recordings of Sondheim’s now beloved score over photographic stills, “Best Worst Thing” would not rise to the heights that it does without the archival footage from an un-aired documentary that Price received two years into shooting. (It was previously thought to have been destroyed). Highlights include an impassioned Prince and Sondheim pitching writer George Furth the idea to cast kids in the roles, which would ultimately be the production’s downfall. After many teary interviews and musings on life’s unexpected turns, the narrative receives a well-timed boost when Price shows footage of the young actors, packed into a studio at the end of a grueling day of callbacks, learning they have all made the cut.
“Merrily We Roll Along” became one of Sondheim’s most beloved shows, with standout songs like “We Had a Good Thing Going” and “Not a Day Goes By” making their way into Broadway lovers’ cabaret acts and solo albums. It has been revived many times since its debut in 1981, perhaps most notably when “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda played Price’s role in an Encores! production at New York City Center. For the purposes of “Best Worst Thing,” Price focuses on the concert revival in 2002, which he directed, that reunited the original cast for one night only.
The “kids,” many of whom moved on to vastly different careers (Pogrebin is a successful journalist and television producer — one photograph shows her kissing Mike Wallace on the cheek), return to the theater where it all started, misty-eyed and remarking how small it seems.
Broadway lovers — who, let’s face it, are all Sondheim fans — will delight in the intimate interviews and rare footage on offer in “Best Worst Thing.” Open-minded film lovers might learn a thing or two about the original show business, and will enjoy appearances from Jason Alexander (one of the original cast members), New York Times theater critic Frank Rich (who remarks how much it pained him to pan the show), Mandy Patinkin (who saw the show a dozen times in previews), and Tonya Pinkins (a Tony award winner who appears Killer Films’ upcoming “Mercy”).
But “Best Worst Thing” is more than a story about a Broadway show; its most poignant moments examine the thrill of dreams coming true, and the inevitable come down afterwards. Much like the characters in “Merrily We Roll Along,” each interviewee lights up with youthful joy at the memory of those electrifying days. Despite learning adulthood’s most bitter lesson so young, they are ultimately grateful for the experience. After all — they had a pretty good thing going.
“Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened” had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. Abramorama will release it on November 18.