By Eileen M. Lavine
Lonny Price, a curly-haired, 20-year-old Jewish kid from New Jersey who worshipped Stephen Sondheim, could hardly believe his luck when he was cast as one of three leads in a new Sondheim musical, Merrily We Roll Along back in 1981. Others in the cast included Jason Alexander—born Greenblatt—age 21, and Abigail Pogrebin, at 16 the youngest member of the group.
The musical was based on a 1934 play with the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It tells its story backwards, showing Frank, Mary and Charley in their 40s, when their long-time friendship has disintegrated, then goes back to show them 20 years earlier in high school, where they sing about their dreams and hopes for the future. But the backward tale, coupled with having young, inexperienced performers play the roles of older adults, just wasn’t believable to audiences, and the show flopped after 16 performances. Interestingly, though, versions of the show have been performed in regional and school productions all over the country.
Now Price, today a successful Broadway director, has dug up footage from the open-call auditions and rehearsals of the show and put together a poignant documentary with this wonderful, heart-grabbing title: The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, which has been showing in movie theaters and is now available on Netflix. (The author of this article confesses her delight at seeing a 20-second audition by her son, then a Columbia undergrad. P.S. He didn’t make the cut! But those who did share their excitement and thrill in the old film shots and in their reminiscences.)
Price frames the early scenes with commentary by some of those youthful cast members looking back today and exploring what the experience meant to them, adding comments by Sondheim, director Hal Prince, reviewer Frank Rich, songwriter Adam Guettel and actor Mandy Patinkin.
Alexander, of course, moved on to become George Constanza on “Seinfeld,” and Jim Walton, another of the leads, has appeared on Broadway, as have others in the cast. Some moved away from the theater completely. Ann Morrison, the third of the leading trio, ended up working with people with disabilities in Sarasota, Florida.
In 2002, Price brought cast members to New York for a one-time concert version of the original, receiving rave plaudits, as shown in the film. Some of the songs remain popular hits, especially “Old Friends” and “Not a Day Goes By.” Abby Pogrebin became a journalist and book author who wrote an article in 2011 about her experiences in the show. She concludes: “One of the lessons of adulthood is disappointment.”