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.