Sondheim’s ‘Best’

A new documentary about the young cast of 'Merrily We Roll Along,' Stephen Sondheim's 1981 musical surprisingly deemed a flop, comes to the Esquire Sunday.

click to enlarge The original cast of Stephen Sondheim’s "Merrily We Roll Along" — Lonny Price, Ann Morrison, and Jim Walton — then, and now. - Left: Martha Swope / Right: Bruce David Klein
Left: Martha Swope / Right: Bruce David Klein
The original cast of Stephen Sondheim’s "Merrily We Roll Along" — Lonny Price, Ann Morrison, and Jim Walton — then, and now.
A new documentary, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, that screens at the Esquire Theatre at 1 p.m. Sunday, is the bittersweet story of the young cast of Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical, a show initially deemed a flop that closed abruptly after just 16 Broadway performances. That was a shock to all involved after Sondheim and producer-director Hal Prince’s success with five innovative, admired Broadway musicals during the 1970s, including CompanyFollies and Sweeney Todd.

Merrily told a show-business story of idealism and disillusion in reverse chronological order, beginning with three central characters at angry, distracted middle age, and then rewinding to their earlier days of ambitious, idealistic dreams to be musical theater hit-makers. Despite a glorious score, the show’s first audiences had a hard time following the story.

The production’s young performers, ages 16 to 25, were idealistic and starstruck. They were convinced that stardom was almost theirs. So when Merrily crashed and burned, it was painful. Sondheim and Prince’s artistic partnership was over. You might imagine that for all involved it was the “worst thing that ever could have happened.”

But that wasn’t the end of their story. Lonny Price, one of the young actors, stayed in touch with everyone. In 2002, two decades after Merrily’s flop, he organized a one-night reunion concert of the performers. In the interim, their cast recording became a cult favorite, actor Jason Alexander achieved stardom as George Costanza on Seinfeld, and numerous Merrily stagings tinkered with and worked on fixing the show. 

Price decided a new story could be told. He located film shot by ABC-TV during auditions and rehearsals in 1981. He interviewed actors at the 2002 concert and across the next decade. He assembled it all for a documentary released last fall at a film festival in New York City. It’s a touching, nostalgic piece about young idealists involved in creating theater and how it shaped their lives — much like the characters in Merrily We Roll Along.

Rick Pender

RICK PENDER has written about theater for CityBeat since its first issues in 1994. Before that he wrote for EveryBody’s News. From 1998 to 2006 he was CityBeat’s arts & entertainment editor. Retired from a long career in public relations, he’s still a local arts fan, providing readers (and public radio listeners)...
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