Calling all Stephen Sondheim worshippers: The documentary “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened” is the story of the esteemed Broadway composer and lyricist’s fabled flop, “Merrily We Roll Along,” which closed after 16 performances in 1981.
Theater director Lonny Price, who co-starred in “Merrily” at age 22, has built this film around a gold mine of unearthed archival footage, shot for a television documentary that never got made. It has enabled him to weave in moments from the show’s long-ago auditions and rehearsals, all in grainy color — like faded memories. Price also interviews many of his fellow cast members, as well as Sondheim and director Harold Prince, asking them to look back on the experience.
The original “Merrily” cast, which ranged in age from 16 to 25, included a 22-year-old Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld” fame. (The others haven’t moved on to Alexander’s level of celebrity, and some have left show business altogether.) Sondheim and Prince speak with candor, and the now middle-aged actors shed a few tears, recalling the joy of working with their idols — as well as their disappointment. How could the “Sweeney Todd” team fail?
Based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, “Merrily We Roll Along” traces the lives and ambitions of three talented pals who go into show business. But it traces their lives in reverse chronology: We meet them in their 40s, jaded and estranged, and then follow them backward to their youth, when the world first beckoned. The conceit left critics and audiences cold.
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Simultaneously warm and clear-eyed, “Best Worst Thing” is an unblinking look at how the sausage of theater gets made, as well as an emotional memoir. Funnily enough, there may be more poignancy in this heart-piercing anatomy of a flop than the original musical was able to muster.
(At the Tivoli.)
‘Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened’
Not rated. Time: 1:36.