Theatre yesterday and today



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What the director Lonny Price has accomplished with his documentary The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, is something close to a miracle. Not only that it took Price nine years to gather footage, clear rights, film interviews and cull financing, but that he managed to do it all while staying true to his subject (and subjects) with overwhelming care and sensitivity. It is a deeply personal rumination on youth, thwarted ambition, the joy of memory (and holding on to it), and does it all while rarely veering into sentimentality. Combining equal parts of the free abandon of what it means to be young with the wisdom of what comes with growing old, the film specifically tells the story of the evolution and convolution of a Broadway musical that opened on Broadway thirty-five years ago and ran for just two weeks.

Merrily We Roll Along is unique not only in the Stephen Sondheim canon (only one of his shows ran for fewer performances), but in the history of Broadway itself. It is the only show that consisted of a cast solely made up of young actors who ranged in age from sixteen to twenty-five. Sadly, what was thought to have been bold and original in theory, wound up unwise and unworkable in practice, especially when audiences in 1982 were paying the then-top price of $35 a ticket.

Exterior of the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) 1981

With a book by George Furth, and produced and directed by Hal Prince, this was a reunion of the team that smashed the template of the Broadway musical with Company a decade earlier. Based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart that opened on Broadway in 1934, its novel device had its story being told backwards. The audience would watch the lead characters (two best guy pals and their faithful and chaste relationship with an essential and important woman in their lives), go from jaded and compromised in middle-age, to idealistic and guileless in their youth, the opposite of the straight-forward way the story would be ordinarily told. This conceit would be recycled a short time later, and with far greater success, by the British playwright Harold Pinter. His Betrayal told the story of a triangle destroyed by a man’s affair with the wife of his best friend. Starting with the devastation it caused, the plot reverses itself, slowly unwinding, until its curtain comes down on the exact moment the man puts his hand on the arm of his best friend’s wife in a gesture that we know will bring an end to all their friendships.

Betrayal was controlled and precise (the only way Pinter ever wrote), but the original Merrily was sprawling and burdened with a cast of ninety-one (how they all fit into the dressing rooms at the mid-size Music Box Theatre is something I will never know). And though the musical version of Merrily totaled a more manageable twenty-seven, it was still a lot of people to follow. In fact, the show was so confusing, that in previews the costumes were junked and the entire cast wore sweatshirts that told the audience who each character was in a given scene: “Best Pal,” etc.

Sally Klein, Jason Alexander, Lonny Price, Jim Walton (who replaced James Weissenbach)

and Ann Morrison, Merrily We Roll Along (1981).

It didn’t work and, unfortunately, neither did the show. Sweating it out in previews under the hot spotlight of the entire Broadway community, there was no out-of-town run that would have allowed for the time necessary to make the eventual changes that could have made the show work. Everyone was trapped in a vehicle that boasted a lot of talent, all of whom essentially started on the wrong foot, never quite in step—a metaphor—and not one referring to the firing of its original choreographer during the long and tortured preview period.

I had a personal connection to Merrily, as I had come to know some of its cast very well. Six months prior to its opening on Broadway, James Weissenbach, Jason Alexander and Liz Callaway and I, filmed a two-hour movie for CBS about a group of high schoolers from Youngstown Ohio, running all over New York City while on their class Senior Trip (its title). All had signed their contracts for Merrily while we were shooting the film and the show was a daily topic of conversation. Weissenbach had landed the leading role of Franklin Shepard and, as we had become very close, I made sure I was at Merrily's first preview performance on Broadway, which the documentary depicts with alarming accuracy.

The preview was something of a disaster. In fact, I had never before (or since) been at the theatre with such a hostile crowd. Not only was the audience gunning for Prince and Sondheim to fail, but they delighted in how wrong their decision was to employ such a young and untested cast. That’s not to say it was a complete failure because there were moments of brilliance (after all, this was a Sondheim), but the problems were glaring and felt, in the moment, insurmountable. It wouldn’t be long before I woke up to a phone call from Weissenbach telling me that he had been fired that morning with less than two weeks to go before opening night.

Perhaps the most telling line in the documentary, comes from David Cady, a member of the ensemble. “We were out of our depth,” he admits. “Most of us were amateurs.” The noble idea that Prince and Sondheim put forth (we see them in the film pitch the idea of a cast of young people to the book writer George Furth with unassailable enthusiasm) indeed proved its downfall. Many subsequent productions of Merrily over the past three decades have been widely praised, award-winning even, but it’s never again been attempted with a cast too young to play the opening scenes of the play, with its characters already burdened by life’s disappointments.

What Price is able to capture in interviews with members of the original Merrily team goes to the very heart of what the disappointments of the show brought to its young company of actors. There’s no regret here, because like all of life’s great experiences, it can never be taken away. Time serves to burnish what once was, but not distort. There is almost a bliss present at times among these men and women, now in their mid-fifties and pushing sixty. No one's lives ended with Merrily, though there were careers genuinely impacted by its quick demise. The film made me cry, but they were tears of empathy and self-realization.

I found myself holding back right up until the very end. But when a placard showed up on screen that read: “For Hal and Steve,” I let my emotions loose. This was Price’s thank you to the two men he grew up admiring the most; who gave him a chance at a dream, and for which he would forever be thankful. And by giving them (and us) this documentary, he has performed a true mitzvah.

Go see The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. Looking back has never looked so good.

Ron Fassler's Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is coming soon from Griffith Moon Publishing: