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How Stephen Sondheim's Biggest Flop Became a Cult Classic

'Merrily We Roll Along' closed after only 16 performances, but today is known as the 'Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.'
November 26, 2016, 1:15pm
The cast of Merrily We Roll Along in 1981. Courtesy Atlas Media and Abramorama

People who know musical theater know that Merrily We Roll Along was one of the greatest flops in Broadway history. Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1981 show about finding success and losing your optimism closed after just 16 performances—to put that into perspective, Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark by Bono and The Edge, considered by many to be a flashy, hazardous failure, ran for a whopping 1,066 performances.

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Now, a moving and meditative documentary is drawing back the curtain on the drama inherent in the musical's origin story. Though quickly shuttered, Merrily We Roll Along gradually assumed legendary status, becoming one of Sondheim’s most beloved musicals. Directed by Lonny Price, one of the stars of the original Broadway production, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened is a thrilling, behind-the-scenes examination of choices and consequences, successes and failures.

Sally Klein, Jason Alexander, Lonny Price, Jim Walton and Ann Morrison in Merrily We Roll Along. Courtesy Martha Swope / The New York Public Library

Merrily We Roll Along, as chronicled by the documentary, is a curious case of life imitating art. The musical unfolds in reverse-chronological order; when we meet its three main characters, they’re middle-aged, successful—and desperately unhappy. But as the show goes on, and the decades roll back, they morph into their younger, more optimistic selves.

Still performed all over the world, its soundtrack is treasured by theater buffs—even those who weren’t alive in the 80s. But though the show was eventually venerated, its evisceration on Broadway irrevocably changed the lives of the young performers involved. Part of the conceit of the original Broadway production was that the roles of embittered, middle-aged people would be played by teenagers, and the entire cast of Merrily We Roll Along was between the ages of 16–25.

The cast today. Courtesy Atlas Media and Abramorama

Best Worst Thing… chronicles the stories of these young actors. As a kid growing up in New Jersey, Price basically talked his way into being an office boy for legendary Broadway producer and director Hal Prince. Sondheim and Prince were an unstoppable Broadway duo; they’d collaborated on hits like Sweeney Todd (1979), Follies (1971), and Company (1970), and it was widely assumed that their next joint effort—the highly-anticipated Merrily We Roll Along—would be a smash, too.

For young Broadway hopefuls, getting cast in the new Sondheim-Prince project was like finding a golden ticket and being invited into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. There was no greater harbinger of success. But when Merrily failed, it was a bitter lesson that that things don't always pan out, despite hard work and talent. For some, witnessing their heroes fail was enough to make them leave the business.

Stephen Sondheim in Best Worst Thing… Courtesy Atlas Media and Abramorama

In Best Worst Thing…, Price interrogates the musical's demise by dissecting old video and contrasting interviews with his fellow cast members—Jim Walton, Ann Morrison, Sally Klein, and Jason Alexander, among others—with footage of their former, fresher-faced selves.

“It’s hard to put into words how I felt making the film. It was a nine-year process, so they are all over the map. I would have to say, finding the lost footage and meeting my 20 year old self on film was an experience I will never forget. Bizarre, moving, and somehow healing,” Price tells The Creators Project.

Price, Morrison, and Walton then and now. Courtesy Atlas Media and Abramorama

35 years down the line, charting the demise and subsequent beatification of a project that so many believed in, is a balm to those who needed it the most. It also helps to explain its enduring resonance with young people. “It’s about them,” Price says. “It’s about how to negotiate a future that they can’t see, but wish they could.”

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened is currently the #1 documentary film on nationwide box office charts. Catch it in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, as well as at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in Los Angeles. For more info and tickets, click here.

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