Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened is a moving and heartfelt documentary about a subject I have absolutely no interest in, namely the unexpected failure of Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince’s 1981 Broadway musical Merrily We Roll Along. It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of musicals in general, and even the duo’s renowned successes like Sweeney Todd leave me flat. So, in the interest of explicitly stating my biases, it’s necessary to point out that this documentary will likely score much higher with fans of musical theater than it did with me.
Directed by Lonny Price, one of three leads from the original cast of Merrily, the film details the rapid ascent to prominence — and even quicker fall from grace — of the production’s young cast. Ranging in age from 16 to 24, the actors tasked with Sondheim’s unconventional narrative structure had their work cut out for them in more ways than one. Not only was this group of talented, but inexperienced, thespians called upon to portray themselves as bitter, middle-aged adults for the entirety of the first act, they also had to act out their character arcs in reverse chronology. Even if the cast handled growing younger on stage as gracefully as their lack of professional maturity would permit, critics and audiences were unwilling to accept the conceit, and the show was nixed after only 16 performances. Though Merrily would go on to become a well-regarded cult hit, its initial failure indelibly affected the cast in ways that would alter the courses of their adult lives.
Price has constructed a proficient and poignant examination of the dangers — and often unforeseen benefits — of achieving too much too soon and of the character-building impacts that early failures can have on people as they reach adulthood. Price’s documentary mercifully follows a linear chronology, showing the starry-eyed ambition of a bunch of theater kids fighting their way through auditions for the chance to work with their idols, only to have their hopes dashed by audience reactions ranging from indifference to disdain. Price builds his narrative through modern interviews with the original cast members (including a pre-Seinfeld Jason Alexander), as well as footage of Sondheim and Price, supplemented with recently unearthed archival material from an unaired documentary shot while the stage production was still in rehearsals.
If Best Worst eschews Sondheim and Price’s flashback gimmick, themes from the musical resonate with the cast’s post-Merrily biographical details to an almost eerie degree of similarity. While Alexander and the rest of the cast went on for the most part to bigger and better things, their journeys were not without disillusionment. As is the case in any life, things seldom go as planned. But there’s something undeniably touching about hearing the unpredictable ways in which the early flirtation with Broadway stardom would affect the later careers of the cast, many of whom remained rooted in the industry that so callously disregarded their efforts.
As a documentarian, Price occasionally projects his psychological suppositions onto his subjects in a way that may well be unavoidable given his intimate connection with the story, but the effect can be distancing for the audience. The film itself is competently structured and well-executed, and Sondheim fans will undoubtedly derive more enjoyment than I did from its soundtrack, which was principally taken from a cast recording completed the day after the show was cancelled. Those with even a passing interest in Broadway will likely find a great deal of merit in Price’s film, but to my eye, it was little more than an exercise in self-indulgent nostalgia grounded in a world I’ve never fully appreciated. As was likely the case with many of the critics assessing the musical on which this film was based, I found the documentary to be a well-crafted work that simply wasn’t to my liking. Your mileage may vary. Not Rated.
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.