How a group of lives were changed by one of the most infamous Broadway disasters of all time

Because Hollywood just doesn’t know when to give it a rest, the last weekend of the summer movie season contains the release of Leap!, the sixth animated film entry since June. The movie tells the story of a French girl who travels to Paris and joins a prestigious dance academy with the hopes of becoming a world-renowned ballerina, despite the many obstacles that stand in her way.

The movie looks well-crafted enough, while a name cast featuring Elle Fanning, Carly-Rae Jepsen, Kate McKinnon and even Mel Brooks show there’s enough voice talent to make Leap! entertaining. Yet it’s the film’s main theme of reaching for insurmountable dreams with gusto and determination which will hopefully imprint themselves into the mind and heart of every youngster who will go to see it.

While it may seem worlds away, the release of Leap! calls to mind, for me anyhow, the recent showbiz documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Happened…, which also touched on the magic of performing as well as the power of dreams and the hardships faced in trying to make them come true.

Using archival footage along with present-day interviews, director Lonny Price chronicles the making of the notorious 1981 Broadway musical flop, Merrily We Roll Along. Featuring recollections from Price and fellow cast members Ann Morrison, Jim Walton and Jason Alexander, as well as the show’s legendary creators, Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened…looks at how one of the biggest bombs on Broadway became a cult classic for musical theater fans while having life-changing effects on its young cast.

In watching everyone discuss the original show, there’s no question that Merrily We Roll Along was well ahead of its time. For those who don’t know, the play opens on three longtime friends in their 50s who have careers ranging from studio executive to movie critic, but who are all miserable in one way or another. Each scene in the play goes back in time by about three years so that the characters are subsequently seen as younger and less affected by society. This continues until the finale which takes place on the characters’ graduation day when they were each ready to go out and conquer the world. It’s hard to deny the telling brilliance of presenting a story in this way. On the one hand, you could say Sondheim and Prince were showing how youth and promise can eventually be tarnished, proving that nothing is sacred in this world. On the other hand though,what Merrily We Roll Along is saying is that even the most jaded and cynical of individuals were not always that way; there’s something deep inside of them which remains effervescent. Aside from the intriguing and thoughtful premise, the show also featured some (naturally) fantastic music that managed to be both catchy and poetic, with songs such as “Our Time,” “Old Friends” and “Good Thing Going” echoing the play’s many themes.

What made the play incredibly bold and daring was the fact that the entire cast was comprised entirely of young people between the ages of 16-25. Seeing young people, who are forever the symbol of hope and promise, play depressed individuals in their fifties was certainly novel and bolstered the show’s mission of pinpointing where dreams end and reality begins. The show’s infectious score with lyrics such as: “We’re the movers and we’re the shapers. We’re the names in tomorrow’s papers,” makes a wonderful juxtaposition to the rather deep areas of life that the plot ventures into. However the most out-of-the-box touch was the decision by Prince to abandon the idea of having his young cast dress up in traditional costumes, thereby looking as if they were a bunch of kids playing dress up. Instead, every member of the cast wore brightly-colored sweatshirts and t-shirts with their character’s archetype, “Gossip Columnist,” “Fan” and “Best Pal,” in bold letters across the chest, taking Merrily We Roll Along into slight postmodern territory.

The most surprising aspect about Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened… was the discovery of how, in essence, the documentary BECAME the play. In looking at the life and career paths the young performers eventually took, it’s interesting and difficult not to note similar themes between the show they helped create and what their own lives became. It’s heartbreaking to hear Morrison describe how the failure of the show led to the temporary loss of her self-esteem, leading her to engage in the same kind of heavy drinking as her character in the show. At the same time it’s fascinating to hear Abigail Pogrebin (the youngest, most starry-eyed member of the cast) tell of how a part-time job as a research assistant she took while waiting for her big break, led to a thriving career in journalism. It’s Alexander (undoubtedly the most famous member of the cast) who gives the most sobering example of life imitating art when talking about his subsequent Tony win, breakthrough role in Pretty Woman and eventual rock star-like fame with Seinfeld. “I thought there’d be more plumes,” Alexander, who played the role of producer in the show, said in reference to the unshakable feeling of something still lacking in spite of every career milestone he achieved.

By far the most profound moment comes when Price unearths vintage footage shot by ABC for an abandoned documentary about the show. You can see the many emotions flooding through Price as he watches his own interview filmed during the show’s rehearsal period. “If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I don’t think I’ll care,” a younger Price says in the footage. “This show, if I never do anything else, I will have had this moment.” Once the reel of film ends, a tearful Price takes a moment before saying: “It’s good to not be embarrassed by him.” When I showed the documentary to a friend of mine, she mistook Price’s reaction to be one of regret due to failed life goals. For the record, after Merrily We Roll Along, Price enjoyed a fruitful career in musical theater as both a performer and director. The reason for Price’s reaction signified something much deeper. It was a stirring illustration of the kind of optimism, hopefulness and overall sense of possibility that is afforded to youth the realization that everyone has been forced to give it up in some way as the years go by. Revisiting who a person once was when they were younger is so overwhelming and brings forth the most unexpected emotions, as wonderfully evidenced in this one scene.

The response to Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened…was greeted by incredibly positive reviews, with many applauding Price’s efforts of tracing both the origins of the play and its real-life results. In many ways, it was the kind of enthusiastic response the original show strived for, but never got. Applause has come however for Merrily We Roll Along in the years since the original show’s close through the different incarnations and stagings of the show which have taken place around the world by those who continue to embrace it.

When I first came across this documentary on Netflix, I admit I chose to watch it hoping for a juicy backstage finger-pointing, blame game fest of what seemed like a glorious showbiz disaster. But the film was never going to be about that; instead it was a tale about ambition and aspirations; about creativity and a steadfast belief in it all. Watching the joy within Sondheim and Prince and how they fed off the excitement of their young cast as they put the show together is compounded by the sadness felt at watching audience members walk out as the spirited performers sang their hearts out on the stage. From having to record the soundtrack album the day after the show closed (“It was going to live on. There was defiance in that,” states Pogrebin), to watching the grown-up cast revisit the very theater where they once felt they were making history, there isn’t a moment of Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened… which doesn’t move and surprise. What I expected to be a crash-and-burn tale of a Broadway fiasco, ended up being one of the most enriching and soulful documentary experiences of recent memory which touched on both the strength of dreams and the power of the past.

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