The legendary lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim is worthy of a great, big, expansive documentary. But if you’re going to make a film that centers on a single show of his, there are certain obvious candidates. In 1970, D.A. Pennebaker documented the recording of the cast album of “Company,” the musical that dissected modern love relationships — back when “relationships” was kind of a new concept — and the one that marked the full-scale launch of the Sondheim vision: the notion that a musical could be as nuanced as a novel, with songs that fused verbal intricacy and tangy harmonics into sublime acerbic monologues. Another candidate would be “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (1979), the show that propelled Sondheim to the height of his fame and creative glory.
“Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened” takes a more audacious and offbeat — and, therefore, Sondheimian — approach. It’s a documentary about a famous flop: “Merrily We Roll Along,” the quasi-experimental musical that Sondheim composed in 1981, right after “Sweeney Todd.” He and his longtime director/producer/collaborator, Harold Prince, knew that because they were coming off the huge success of “Sweeney,” they now had the chance to take a chance — to try for something that would be game-changing even for them. It turned out to be their endgame.
“Best Worst Thing” is directed by Lonny Price, who was one of the three leads in “Merrily We Roll Along.” Early on, he digs out 35-year-old tapes recorded for an ABC-TV documentary on Sondheim that never aired, and he watches his dewy, puppy-eyed, long-curly-haired young self talk about how being in this show is the greatest thing he can ever imagine happening. That’s how everyone in the cast feels. They’re all Sondheim freaks, but they’re also just kids (they range in age from 16 to 25) who have been brought on board to act out Sondheim and Prince’s fearless concept — a musical about a composer, a lyricist, and a critic all growing into middle age, but cast with actors who look young enough to be in a high-school musical. Come to think of it, the concept isn’t all that radical; basically, it’s what you see anytime you watch a high-school musical. But Sondheim and Prince also had the idea to tell their story backward (once again, not so original — Harold Pinter had done it in “Betrayal” in 1978), and the pileup of all this conceptual flimflam turned out to be deadening.
Major tinkering went on during the previews, but up until opening night, Sondheim, Prince, and company thought they had a brilliant show. Audiences, however, could barely sit still for it, and the critics were savage; the show closed after only 16 performances. Frank Rich, as ardent a Sondheim fan as there is, looks back in sadness at his pan in The New York Times, but stands by it, and he describes the profound confusion the show provoked in audiences. The combination of kids playing adults and time moving backwards was one dislocation too many. Basically, Sondheim and Prince had outsmarted themselves, though one crucial story the film leaves out is why the two never worked together again. Was it simply the debacle that disillusioned them — or did failure make them realize that they’d said all they had to say?
“Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened” is a nimble documentary made with a personal touch of nostalgia, and it should prove nothing less than catnip to Sondheim obsessives. For my taste, it goes a little heavy on the Sondheim gush (a few too many testimonials from actors who simply couldn’t believe they were in the same room with Stephen and Hal), but there’s an exquisite fascination and mystique to seeing Sondheim in his prime, looking to write “simple” songs of the kind he did when he was 25. “Merrily We Roll Along” remains one of his most entrancing scores, and that’s why it’s one of the most ironic bombs in Broadway history. All the stuff the show’s creators were getting excited about turned out to be awful, but the thing they took for granted — Sondheim’s tunes — could have been the basis for a classic show.
Price interviews all the original cast members, many of whom wound up falling between the cracks of the theater world, though a few kept going — notably Jim Walton, who went on to have a major Broadway career, and Jason Alexander, who made his debut in “Merrily.” Price himself became a director (of Sondheim musicals, among other things), and in 2002 he was responsible for bringing the original cast back together for a crucial one-night concert revival of “Merrily We Roll Along.” Now that the actors were actually adults, people could simply sit back and hear the songs. The show turned into something comparable to a cult film, and it has since been revived many times, its songs (like “Now You Know” and the haunting “Not a Day Goes By”) recorded by major artists. It’s the flop that came back from the dead. But even if it hadn’t, “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened” illustrates an essential principle of art: You have to risk cataclysmic failure — and, at times, fall into it — if you’re planning to scale the heights.