Documentary: “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened”

I’m watching reports of the huge snow dump in upstate New York today making me wistful. In the fall of 1981, I began my college years as a freshman at Syracuse University.

Aspiring to become a Broadway actor, the Syracuse University Musical Theatre program was one of the very best in the country at the time. I was lucky to be there.

As I began classes that autumn, the professors informed us all exactly how lucky – a recent graduate Jim Weissenbach had snagged the leading role in the upcoming Stephen Sondheim/Hal Prince Broadway musical, Merrily We Roll Along.

Sondheim and Prince were on a decade long roll of critical hits on Broadway including Company, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd.

Hal Prince (L) and Stephen Sondheim (R)

Well, of course, we all followed the news of what we expected to be the soon-to-be hit. Not only was it Sondheim (I mean, SONDHEIM!) but the show was about three idealistic young people whose story is told backward.

Beginning with the audience meeting their older, cynical selves, the production journeys back to land at their beginning as dreamy, starry-eyed teens.

Yesterday is done / See the pretty countryside
Merrily we roll along, roll along – bursting with dreams.
Travelings’ the fun / Flashing by the countryside
Everybody merrily, merrily – catching at dreams
Rolling along, rolling along

How much more relatable could this have been?

But just a few weeks into the fall semester came the crushing news at SU that Weissenbach had been replaced in previews. More negative rumors began making their way through the NYC (and Syracuse University) theater gossip as it was reported that audiences were walking out. Among various issues, the reverse chronology was difficult for theater-goers to grasp.

Ultimately, the show ran for 52 previews and only 16 now-infamous performances before closing.

But the SCORE! The score was incredible. Complex in its cynicism, boundless in its youthful optimism. You probably know the standout, achingly beautiful “Not A Day Goes By” from the show. If not, please run over to iTunes and check out the original Broadway cast recording here.

Being the same age as the characters in the musical, and living vicariously through those young actors in NYC, I and my classmates were forever marked by the musical’s ineffable glory.

Now, original cast member and acclaimed actor/director, Lonny Price has directed a documentary taking a long look at both the euphoria and disappointments of the one in a lifetime experience.

The title takes a twist on one of the scores oft-repeated lyrics – BEST WORST THING THAT EVER COULD HAVE HAPPENED.

Official synopsis:

One of the truly legendary musicals in the history of Broadway, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG opened to enormous fanfare in 1981 and closed after sixteen performances.

For the first time, BEST WORST THING THAT EVER COULD HAVE HAPPENED draws back the curtain on the extraordinary drama of the show’s creation – and tells the stories of the hopeful young performers whose lives were transformed by it.

Directed by Lonny Price, a member of the original cast, the film is a bittersweet meditation on the choices we all make, and the often unexpected consequences of those choices — through success and failure. Featuring exclusive appearances by Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, Jason Alexander, Mandy Patinkin, Adam Guettel, Frank Rich and the original Broadway cast of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.

The documentary has garnered strong reviews at film festivals, and is playing now in NYC and opens in Los Angeles at the Laemmle’s Royal Theatre (1523 Santa Monica Blvd.) this Friday.

I will definitely be making a point of seeing this.

Something is stirring, Shifting ground
It’s just begun.
Edges are blurring, All around
And yesterday is done.