The Best Worst Thing that Could Have Happened
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG opened on Broadway in 1981 and ran for 52 previews and 16 performances. Sondheim wrote the magnificent score and Hal Prince directed the show. It was a huge flop. And it was devastating to everyone involved. After big hits like COMPANY, FOLLIES, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and of course, SWEENEY TODD, the whole theatre world was waiting for their next big hit. What they got next was MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.
There is a new documentary on NETFLIX about the whole emotional roller coaster experience called “The Best Worst Thing that Could Have Happened.” It is the story of the making of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. Because history was being made, much of the creative process before the show even started rehearsals was documented by a film crew. Then, twenty years later, one of the original cast members, who had, himself, become a successful director, decided to work on a documentary about the show. Here are some of the things that amazed me as I watched the movie….(I confess….three times.)
- At one point in the film, there is archival footage of Sondheim saying, just before rehearsal starts, “I still have six more songs to write.” Imagine that…….the show is cast, and rehearsal is about to start, and the show is not yet finished….
- The leading man (or kid) in the show [the show was cast with young adults from 16 – 20something] was replaced during previews. You hear cast members say that “many knew that the first guy was not really right” but nothing was done about it until previews.
- Hal Prince says something like, “Never have I been more sure of a show, and never have I been more wrong about a show.” This tells me that even the greatest talents on Broadway can be wrong.
- There is footage from inside the theatre during preview performances….and you see rows of people walking out. Shocking.
- MERRILY ended the collaboration between Sondheim and Prince. It not only stunned the lives of the cast, but also bruised the relationship between these two giants in ways that were never completely healed.
A key concept at the heart of the show – and maybe one of the things that was its downfall – is that the story is told backwards. The first scenes introduce us to mid-life people. As the show progresses, they get younger. At the end of the show you finally arrive – weirdly – at the beginning of the story.
Somewhere in the documentary is the quote “One of the lessons of adulthood is disappointment” A touching line and, in some ways, the theme of the musical. Still, when you get to the end of the show (the beginning of the story!), you get to hear one of the most glorious songs Sondheim ever wrote. “Our Time,” …starts…Something is stirring all around – is the first lyric. It is a song about optimism and hope – Young people with big dreams and goals. They think they can change the world! Beautiful!
And one of the reasons why, with all its oddities, I love this show!