By: Jessica Goddard
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened is a documentary that operates largely like a moving, speaking scrapbook, and for this reason it is both preciously poignant and guilty of some (ultimately forgivable) navel-gazing.
The film looks back on the conception, casting, and ultimate failure of the 1981 Broadway musical Merrily We Roll Along, the last collaboration between lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince until 2003. The filmmaker, Lonny Price (also one of the leads of the ill-fated musical), interviews his old cast mates, taking the viewer through the thrills of being cast, the elation of performing, and the devastation felt by all when Merrily We Roll Along received scathing reviews and ended its Broadway run after only 16 shows.
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened colourfully and effectively captures the youthful optimism at the center of its premise, always juxtaposing this against a sense of incoming dread for the viewers who know that Merrily We Roll Along’s days are numbered. The documentary also weaves the music from the original score into the film, giving its audience who have never seen the show a sample of the original musical’s tone and intention.
Ultimately though, the viewer is left wishing they knew more. A key part of the story seems to be suspiciously absent – why did the legendary Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince end their collaboration spree after this show? What was it about this failure that caused such a rift? The filmmaker seems perfectly poised to ask Sondheim and Prince these questions, but for some reason opts out.
Instead, director Price makes the mistake of assuming the viewer is as interested in his old friends as he is. Truthfully, only a niche fraction of his audience will be especially curious as to what specifically became of the stars of the 1981 show, other than to know whether they’re dead or alive. The only name and face that rings a bell is Jason Alexander’s, of notable George Costanza fame.
This is a documentary that is meant for artists and anyone with creative aspirations, but it won’t grip those with no interest in musicals or the theatre, like perhaps an effective documentary should. Still, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened is touching and its themes do resonate. Part of what makes this film thought-provoking is that it’s bound to mean different things to the young and the old – a cautionary tale for some, perhaps, and a sincere dispatch of solidarity for others.
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Jessica Goddard: @TheJGod