I was one of the few to see the original production of “Merrily We Roll Along,” which opened on Broadway in 1981 and, having received mostly catastrophic reviews, closed after 16 performances. On the night I saw it, the audience response was polite but halfhearted because by then it was already a certified flop.
The buildup to the opening of a musical that everyone expected would be a hit and the subsequent crash are movingly chronicled in Lonny Price’s documentary, “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.” The show, produced and directed by Harold Prince, had first-rate songs by Stephen Sondheim in the brassy mainstream Broadway tradition, and a clever book by George Furth, who had been the librettist for “Company.”
Expectations were especially high because “Merrily” was the follow-up to Mr. Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd.” How could it fail? The abrupt letdown was a brutal shock to everyone involved, and resulted in the severing of the seemingly unbreakable Sondheim-Prince collaboration.
Mr. Price, an eternally boyish actor turned director, was in it from the beginning, playing one of the show’s three main characters, Charley Kringas, a song lyricist. Charley and his best friends, Franklin Shepard, a Broadway composer, and Mary Flynn, a journalist, set out in the late 1950s to conquer Broadway and succeed. But fame and wealth bring them bitterness and strife, much of it related to money.
Because the story, adapted from a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, was told backward, audiences were confused by the chronology. They were further mystified by the seemingly logic-defying decision to have young actors ranging in age from 16 to 25 play the grown-up characters. The offbeat casting was one conceptual experiment too many.
“Best Worst Thing” could never have been made without the discovery of tapes for an ABC television special about the making of “Merrily” that was shelved after the musical fizzled. Those tapes are the foundation of a documentary in which the show’s performers, most of them now in their 50s, look back and tell their stories.
The film strongly echoes D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary “Original Cast Album: Company,” about the making of that show’s cast album in 1970. (All that’s missing is the incandescent presence of Elaine Stritch preparing her signature song “Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company.”) The most famous alumnus of the “Merrily” ensemble is Jason Alexander, who later starred as George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” who muses sardonically about the perks and hazards of celebrity.
Because “Merrily” was a musical about the ravages of time on friendship and youthful ideals, the documentary tells parallel stories — one fictional, the other real — of disappointment and disillusion. They give the film a double shot of poignancy. The original cast members who are interviewed recovered their equilibrium, put on a brave face and went on with their lives.
For the young actors, being handpicked by Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Prince to be in their new show was tantamount to being plucked by the gods to join them on Olympus, and they embraced the challenge with the same feverish joy and optimism as the fictional show business hopefuls belting out the musical’s upbeat anthem, “Our Time.”
What they recall of the weeks leading up to the opening is a collective spirit of dizzy camaraderie. The first blemish on their dream was the replacement of James Weissenbach, the original Franklin Shepard, by Jim Walton. The day after the closing-night performance, they reassembled one more time to record the original cast album with its now famous songs, “Good Thing Going,” “Old Friends” and “Not a Day Goes By.” Then all at once it was over.
Frank Rich, the New York Times theater critic at the time, recalls his disappointment that the show “didn’t fly,” and suggests that having actors in their early 20s play jaded middle-age people for a whole act was asking too much.
“Merrily” has enjoyed many lives and many productions since 1981, and is now considered by many critics to be a major work hindered by structural challenges and blessed with a great score. Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Prince, interviewed then and now, are articulate, companionable presences.
But the ultimate carrier of the torch is Mr. Price, who in 2002 helped organize a triumphant concert production of “Merrily” that reunited the original cast. His passionate enthusiasm and sense of wonder animate every frame and leave you with a misty-eyed glow.
“Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened” is not rated. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.
A film review on Friday about the documentary “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” which looks at the short-lived 1981 Broadway musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” misstated the timing of the recording of the original cast album. It was made the day after the show closed, not the day after it opened.