Reel Dad: Best Worst Thing celebrates Broadway musicals

The new documentary, Best Worst Thing, tells the story of Stephen Sondheim's ill-fated Broadway musical, Merrily We Roll Along.

The new documentary, Best Worst Thing, tells the story of Stephen Sondheim’s ill-fated Broadway musical, Merrily We Roll Along.

Thirty-five years ago, a musical opened on Broadway that delighted some and frustrated many.

That show — Merrily We Roll Along — played 16 performances in November 1981 after enduring 52 previews where audiences walked out, a lead cast member was replaced and the creative staff couldn’t figure out how to balance a confusing script, a curious production, a wonderful score and unlimited potential.

I remember seeing the show on a Saturday afternoon just before it opened. While I watched the stage, fascinated by the material, I couldn’t help but notice composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince talking nearby about why the show wasn’t working. Was it the choice to tell the story in reverse, with the end coming before the beginning? Or selecting a young cast to play older versions of their characters? Or replacing traditional costumes with sweatshirts labeled with character names? And how could a show with such a powerful score be so quickly dismissed?

Lonny Price — one of the original cast members — revisits the legend of Merrily We Roll Along in this new documentary that premiered at the New York Film Festival and now opens in theaters. But rather than fully explore what was behind the creative choices, Price chooses to focus on what being in the show meant to its cast. While he delivers an entertaining look at the experience and impact of appearing in a Broadway show, he doesn’t examine why the creators couldn’t fix a show with so much working in its favor. And that would have been quite a film.

Yes, Price details the challenges of the show’s approach, and we hear Sondheim think through what remains one of his most accessible scores. But as soon as Price starts to follow a thread about the show’s development, he jumps to a cast member’s life. After reliving the show’s ill-fated opening night, for example, he leaves that story to focus on how a someone in the show coped with the closing. Yes, we hear Jason Alexander, who later hit the big time with Seinfeld, remember the details of his experience and Broadway veteran Jim Walton recall the challenge of stepping into the lead role shortly before the opening. But we want to hear more about what happened backstage of a show we can’t forget.

Director Price had access to Sondheim and Prince as well as fascinating archival footage of the show’s casting, rehearsal and performance. He could have created an ultimate look at what it takes to succeed on Broadway as he examined how a show must have more than a strong score, a reliable director and an eager cast. But Price chooses to tell different stories. And, of the cast members, the director gives himself the most screen time to track his own career. As entertaining as this may be, he misses the chance to get to the heart of the show that started it all.

Fortunately, revivals of Merrily have addressed its production issues and a recent version – winner of London’s Olivier Award in 2014 – is considered an ultimate staging of a misunderstood classic. Certainly the score is one of Sondheim’s loveliest. And each time in this documentary we get to hear strains of this music we hope for more. But we just don’t get enough.

Best Worst Thing

Content: Medium. The film is at its best when focusing on the creative efforts of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince.

Entertainment: High. While much of the film explores what being in the show meant to its cast, the movie sings when it celebrates Sondheim’s luscious score.

Message: Medium. Although director Lonny Price focuses on individual cast members, the film shines when celebrating the potential magic this musical took years to address.

Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to enjoy an entertaining look at a Broadway musical is worthwhile. Especially if you like Broadway musicals.

Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. If you have seen Merrily We Roll Along, the film will be irresistible. Others may enjoy it, too.

 (The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened does not have an MPAA rating. The film runs 95 minutes.)

Reel Dad Rating: Three Popcorn Buckets

More Movies About Broadway

by Mark Schumann

For anyone who loves Broadway, the movies offer entertaining looks at what happens backstage. While some of these are documentaries – like Best Worst Thing That Ever Happened – narrative films love a good show. Here are some of the best.

Company: Original Cast Album (1970)

In 1970, Stephen Sondheim reinvented the Broadway musical with a searing view of the ups and downs of married life. This wondrous documentary by D. A. Pennebaker captures the energy, frustration and talent involved in recording the show’s original cast album. In 14 available on one Sunday, cast members reveal their fears, ambitions and hopes as they preserve the magic of Sondheim’s score. Elaine Stritch emerges as a most complex, driven and unforgettable personality.

Stephen Sondheim’s Follies in Concert (1985)

A year after Company, Sondheim created this haunting view of aging and relationships. But the show was not a financial success and only portions of its music made it to the cast album. Fortunately, 14 years later, cameras captured a concert performance at Lincoln Center when the full score was recorded. Elaine Stritch delivers a dynamic rendition of Broadway Baby while Carol Burnett stops the show with her interpretation of I’m Still Here.

Moon Over Buffalo (1997)

Audiences love it when a diva plays Broadway. And when that star is the beloved Carol Burnett – several years after the Follies concert – people can’t buy tickets fast enough. But the demands of the show, a comedy named Moon Over Buffalo, challenged the star. As documentarian D. A. Pennebaker reveals, a star’s ego can be threatened when her talent and presence are questioned. Burnett reveals the many layers a performer must protect in a film that is more interesting than the show it follows.

All That Jazz (1979)

In 1972, Bob Fosse made Broadway history by winning an Oscar (for directing Cabaret), a Tony (for staging Pippin) and an Emmy (for Liza With a Z) the same year. But he didn’t handle success well. And, a few years later, he dared to dramatize his battles with ego, substances and relationships in this autobiographical look at what it takes to stage a Broadway musical. While Roy Scheider amazes as Fosse’s alter ego, it’s the director’s willingness to tell his story that makes this so memorable.

The Bandwagon (1953)

Vincente Minnelli – who started his career in New York theater – brings his Broadway sensibility to a magical look at backstage life starring the legendary Fred Astaire. As he and Cyd Charisse sing and dance their way through the score by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, they celebrate the traditions, dreams and superstitions that define the Broadway musical. And they make us want to watch the other musical they made together, Silk Stockings, from 1957.

The Goodbye Girl (1977)

Leave it prolific Broadway playwright Neil Simon to find the humor in backstage life in this romantic comedy that was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. Richard Dreyfuss won the Best Actor Oscar for his unforgettable portrayal of an actor with an ego large enough to fill any theater. Marsha Mason scored a nomination for her endearing work as a Broadway gypsy trying to navigate her way through the ups and downs of musicals, romance and motherhood.

And the list goes on. From The Producers to Funny Girl, the movies love to look at what happens on Broadway when people get together to put on a show.

And we’re the lucky ones who get to savor the results.

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