Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened
(USA, 96 min.)
Dir. Lonny Price
Here’s a story to which anybody in the arts can relate: failure.
Director Lonny Price chronicles a painful chapter from his past and the silver linings it produced in the documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. The doc revisits the director’s days as an aspiring performer and the time he made his Broadway debut. The job, he explains, was a role in the new musical by Stephen Sondheim and Harold Price—any theatre student’s dream gig. However, as Best Worst Thing reveals, that musical was the 1981 debacle Merrily We Roll Along, an ambitious production about jaded adults played by their teenage counterparts in a theatrical experiment that just didn’t click with audiences. Price goes behind the camera for this personal exploration of those who make it to the spotlight and those who find themselves twenty feet (or more) from stardom.
Best Worst Thing shows how there’s no recipe for success as Price interviews several of Merrily’s cast and crew, including Sondheim and Price, who recount jubilant days of rehearsals. The now-mature cast members recall a great buzz and energy in theatre as the youthful optimism brought out a spark in the show. However much this obscure Sondheim/Price musical sounds like it shines, though, the doc takes a great dramatic turn as the cast and crew recount the disastrous first preview that featured a mass exodus of patrons. The cast and crew, now speaking without the rosy tint of nostalgia, explain the tinkering efforts to save the production, which included changing numbers, switching gears, and replacing the lead actor.
Cue a montage in which critics deem Merrily a bellyflop. The curtain closes after a brief 16 performances. Dreams die.
While Best Worst Thing offers a fun peek behind the curtain with the backstage dive of its first act, the doc excels in its latter half as Price follows the stars of the original production down their career paths. One of the chorus boys, Jason Alexander, stands out as Merrily’s biggest star given his success with Seinfeld on television and The Producers in theatre, and recounts a pleasant story of sticking with his dream despite the bumpy start.
Others, however, like Terry Finn, provide a narrative that’s more likely to speak to aspiring actors. In an unexpectedly emotional and disarming interview, she shares with Price the difficulty of persevering in a profession as unforgiving and competitive as acting. Between gigs, being an aspiring artist entails a mess of emotions telling one to give up or move forward.
More often than not, though, Price’s former cast mates tell how they walked away from showbusiness soon or immediately after the cold hard failure of Merrily We Roll Along. The interviewees openly share how the disaster was a wakeup call that revealed the dark underbelly of their dream careers with short gigs, competitive drives, and uncertain futures. The doc finds some happy turns in life, however, as several cast members discuss rewarding careers as journalists, educators, and social workers, just to name a few.
The bittersweet irony of these career paths is that they mirror the message of the show that shaped their lives. Merrily We Roll Along sings about how one’s life path doesn’t always follow one’s dreams. The film offers a sobering, matter-of-fact account that part of growing up simply involves assessing prospects, weighing values, and reshaping dreams. Best Worst Thing optimistically brings the cast together for a reunion in which no star stands above the other, for they’ve all learned the necessity of redefining success as they’ve progressed through life. Success might be the spotlight, but it is also a rewarding career elsewhere or the joy of having a family. Theatre fans are bound to love the musical side of Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, but anyone who ever feels that life turned out to be less than they expected it to be is bound to see something of themselves in this intimate and comforting doc. This one’s for those who dream.