Of all the clamorous flops in Broadway history, few musicals are as beloved as Merrily We Roll Along, the 1981 collaboration of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and producer-director Harold Prince that brought their celebrated partnership to a halt when it closed after just 16 performances. Lonny Price, one of the youthful original cast who believed that working with their idols meant they had made it, chronicles the show’s creation in this lovingly assembled documentary, reliving both the euphoria of the experience and its crushing disappointments.
Picked up by Abramorama for release following its New York Film Festival premiere, the film will be devoured by musical theater aficionados. And while this poignant nostalgia piece can’t match the extraordinary you-are-there vitality or compact narrative shaping of D.A. Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: Company, it should find a place alongside that treasured 1970 film on the shelves of the Sondheim faithful.
An unattributed quote cited early in the film states, “One of the lessons of adulthood is disappointment.” That’s one of the themes both of Merrily and of Price’s film, along with friendship, loss of idealism and the transformative nature of experience.
Following the critical success of Sondheim and Prince with Sweeney Todd in 1979, the producer’s wife suggested he do a show about young people. Prince took the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart that shares its title with Merrily to Sondheim, who liked the idea and the tricky reverse-chronology structure of starting with the characters as jaded adults and then moving gradually backwards to their optimistic youth. To write the book, they brought in George Furth, with whom they had worked successfully on Company; he updated the time frame to begin in the present and made the characters’ world more theater-centric. But preview audiences found the storyline confusing, and the decision to cast the show with young actors ranging from 16-25 didn’t work with the characters’ middle-aged incarnations.
Price sketches in his background as an unsporty New Jersey Jewish kid who grew up memorizing the cast albums of Sondheim-Prince shows and only found a place he felt he belonged once he discovered the theater. (He played the louche Emcee in a school production of Cabaret at 14.) There’s sweet self-irony in his certainty that the level of his hero worship of Sondheim and Prince made him unique — until he cuts to multiple other original Merrily recruits recounting similar tales of being bitten by the theater bug and pinching themselves with disbelief to be working with the gods of Broadway at such a young age.
Best Worst Thing makes that excitement electric, and the most entertaining part of the film is the recap of the open-call audition, for which hundreds showed up, followed by the dizzying high of being chosen. One of the original cast who found the widest fame in the decades that followed, Jason Alexander, describes it thus: “Steve Sondheim, Hal Prince, I mean who else could have been in that room? Christ and Moses, right?”
The individual personalities that emerge in interviews both from back in 1981 and now, with the actors in their 50s, are often delightful, both funny and rueful. Ann Morrison, who played the female lead and was the last to be cast, says, “I had this idea I could go into a bank and ask for a loan and I would get it because I was in the next Sondheim show.” Others are wryly amusing about the dreams they hoped being on Broadway would fulfill. “I wanted to sleep with Kevin Kline,” confesses Terry Finn, who had seen the actor that year in The Pirates of Penzance. “It was a huge motivator.” Finn is among the most engaging subjects, getting emotional as she describes watching Sondheim walk students through one of his songs on YouTube as a way to bring her own memories back to life.
The veil of ecstatic hopefulness starts to fall a little during previews, as bored audiences begin walking out in droves, and the company’s morale takes a knock when original male lead James Weissenbach is replaced by Jim Walton. Both men speak openly about the shakeup, sharing touching insights about the breaks and heartaches of doing a major Broadway show. But the cruelest blow comes on opening night, with reviews dismissing the musical as an experimental failure, and poor ticket sales prompting the production to close just 12 days later. The sorrow was compounded when the company reassembled the morning after their final performance and spent 16 hours recording the original cast album.
Like many short-lived Broadway shows, Merrily would be partially vindicated via the defiant act of that recording and by the growing appreciation for Sondheim’s score, many songs from which are heard here in stirring performance excerpts. But one weakness of Price’s film is that he shows only cursory interest in the gradual process by which Merrily‘s reputation was turned around. Retooled subsequent productions helped to correct issues with Furth’s book and Prince’s original staging, and the show has been widely produced in subsequent decades, though never again on Broadway.
But Price’s primary focus is checking back in on the original cast for their recollections of how the show’s failure hit them and how they now view the experience in hindsight, also looking at their lives and careers in the years that followed. This lends the film a lovely bittersweet wistfulness, along with moments of triumph, such as a 2002 reunion concert in which the cast had become old friends singing “Old Friends.” A more recent return by key cast back to their brief Broadway home at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) also provides tender moments.
The biggest coup for Price and his editor Rikki Portner was the unexpected discovery, two years after beginning work on the project, of footage from an abandoned ABC special about the making of Merrily, which they initially believed had been lost. That includes fascinating access to Sondheim, Prince and Furth (who died in 2008) at work on the show. The real gold, however, is the clips of young actors literally bubbling over with hope and joy. These will be meaningful to anyone who has ever spent time in the theater, whether at the amateur or professional level. Recent interviews with Sondheim, Prince, composer Adam Guettel, actor Mandy Patinkin and critic Frank Rich, among others, broaden the perspective and provide excellent context.
Price gradually moved out of acting into stage direction, frequently filming live performances for TV, most recently with Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill for HBO. In his highly personal first documentary, he mostly avoids the trap of over-inserting himself into material that by its very nature is a celebration of the ensemble dynamic, succumbing only in framing sequences in which he tears up watching an interview with his younger self. But as someone who was there in the thick of a production forever imprinted on the hearts and minds of its young actors, he’s earned the right to a little sentimental self-indulgence. Nobody who loves Merrily is going to begrudge him that or want to miss this film.
Venue: New York Film Festival (Special Events)
Opens: Friday, Nov. 18 (Abramorama)
Production companies: Atlas Media Group, Allright Productions
With: Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, Lonny Price, Jason Alexander, Jim Walton, Ann Morrison, Tonya Pinkins, Terry Finn, Abby Pogrebin, Daisy Prince, Mandy Patinkin, Adam Guettel, Frank Rich, James Weissenbach, James Bonkovsky, David Cady
Director: Lonny Price
Screenwriters: Ted Schillinger, Kitt Lavoie, Lonny Price
Producers: Bruce David Klein, Lonny Price, Kitt Lavoie, Ted Schillinger
Executive producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush
Directors of photography: Matthew Howe, Elaine Epstein
Editor: Rikki Portner
Not rated, 97 minutes