Did you see what Newsweek’s Joe Westerfield had to say about Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened?
We’re talking about Lonny Price’s extraordinary documentary about the original 1981 Broadway production of Merrily We Roll Along. That Price did a fine job as a historian isn’t surprising, for he was there from the first-ever reading. Many who saw the actual show still remember the sensation he caused as Charley Kringas when he sang “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” – his complaint about his friend and collaborator who’d recently been found wanting in both roles in order to become a producer of matter-of-fact movies. And to think that Charley and Frank had a good thing going – once.
And for a time, as the documentary shows, Merrily had a good thing going in the months leading up to production, for it was easily the most anticipated musical of the season. How could it not be, with Hal Prince, already the possessor of eighteen Tonys, directing a new work by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth; eleven years earlier, all three had made theatrical history with Company.
So imagine the joy felt by twenty-six young adults from sixteen to twenty-five when they heard, after weeks of grueling auditions, that they were cast in this destined-to-be-a-smash hit. Three years earlier, Sondheim had been writing Sweeney Todd; now he’d be writing for them.
Then came that first preview when Merrily met a hostile public; five weeks later it encountered substantially more hostile critics. Then it was going … going … and finally gone after a mere sixteen performances.
The title of the documentary comes from a line that Charley tells Frank after his first wife divorces him – that it’s the “best thing that ever could have happened.”
Why Price inserted the word “worst” in there is hardly a mystery.
In reviewing the documentary, Westerfield states that “Underscoring all of the action is the original cast album to Merrily, which almost automatically gives Best Worst Thing the best score of any documentary, and probably any movie since Amadeus.”
And that latter film, you may recall, had music by Mozart.
How wonderful that writers keep finding new ways to praise Stephen Sondheim.
Indeed, Merrily We Roll Along has a score well worth praising. You’ll hear bits and pieces of it in this documentary — enough to whet your appetite to hear every bit of the music and lyrics. Few original cast albums get off to a better start, for the overture is still the best one we’ve heard in the last thirty-five years.
While you listen to the album, pay attention to the lyrics so that you can imagine the experience that 1,466 people and I had at the closing performance on Saturday evening, Nov. 28, 1981 – which was the first time I’d seen Merrily since the first preview on Oct. 8. I watched in wonder at the bravery that the young actors and actresses displayed when they sang so many lyrics that inadvertently commented on their unmerry roll through Broadway’s meat-grinder.
In “The Hills of Tomorrow” — the stirring school anthem that Frank and Charley wrote when they were students at Lake Forest Academy twenty-five years earlier – they had to sing “Our hearts were high” and “There are worlds to win.” Well, the twenty-six young performers’ hearts were indeed high when they were cast, but fourteen would never again appear on Broadway.
Some others did have show biz worlds that they won: Price, Tonya Pinkins, Liz Callaway, Jim Walton and David Loud have had long careers, as has, of course, Jason Alexander, who became a household name. One megastar out of twenty-six aspirants? At first, those might seem to be pretty accurate and realistic odds in musical theater – but the truth is that the odds are far more deadly than that.
During the closing performance, we mourned for the performers who sang in the title song “Time goes by and hopes go dry” … “Dreams that will explode” … “What can go wrong?” … “Some rides are rough” … “What did you have to go through?” Soon after came “Rich and Happy,” which made us feel for Walton when he sang, “Who says all our dreams get burned?” and “It’s my time coming through.”
“My time.” I’d remembered from the first preview that the two notes that Frank sang on “my time” were the same as the ones I’d previously heard near show’s end. But there Frank sang “our time,” for he had included both Charley and their best friend Mary Flynn as future achievers.
Alas, in twenty-five years, friendships can grow colder than a witch’s spit in sub-zero weather, which is what happened to this alliance. A mere two notes and one word are all that are left of Frank’s then-lofty ambitions that have now turned self-centric.
Mary then assessed Frank’s so-called friends who two-facedly told him they loved his new movie until he was out of earshot; then they panned it as much as the many critics had panned Merrily. Ann Morrison’s middle-aged Mary dryly observed, “These are the movers, these are the shapers,” also echoing a sentiment from “Our Time.” At this point, however, she meant it as a disgusted criticism; when Frank sang it, he was making a bold prediction about the many great glories his generation would accomplish.
“Nothing’s the way that it was,” sang Mary who rued the changes she’d seen time cause. That reminded me of an irony: many months earlier, the cast had received word from Hal Prince that Sondheim hadn’t yet finished the score and that the show would be postponed from spring to fall. At the time, little did the kids know that the delay would give them an in-advance reprieve, for they had six extra months in which their dreams of success and stardom could be kept alive. Now, after Nov. 28, 1981, nothing would ever be the way that it was.
How they must have realized it when they performed the first-act closer, “Now You Know.” We sympathized when they sang such lines as “Bricks can fall out of clear blue skies” … “Yes, sir, quite a blow” … “That’s the killer” … “Tomorrow doesn’t look so hot.”
Well, yes and no. That “tomorrow” — Sunday, Nov. 29 – they would get together one last time to record the original cast album of the score – the one that prompted Frank Rich of the New York Times to write “Sondheim has given this evening a half-dozen songs that are crushing and beautiful – that soar and linger and hurt.”
A half-dozen? Merrily has fourteen songs, and it’s a rare musical theater enthusiast who’d be able to limit his enthusiasm for Sondheim’s songs to a mere half-dozen. Six years later when Rich reviewed Into the Woods, he wrote “Time and second hearings always tell with a Sondheim score.” Here’s betting that in the interim he gave Merrily far more than a second hearing and upped his tally of beautiful songs that soar and linger.
Haven’t we all? And so too will all those who now discover Sondheim’s warmest score after they see Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.