Recently I watched an amazing documentary. One that will speak to some more than others as it deals with a musical on Broadway in 1981 that closed quickly, but became a legendary tale. Merrily We Roll Along was written by the amazing Stephen Sondheim and George Furth based on a 1934 play. It was directed by Hal Prince reuniting this dream team that had brought the world so many incredible musicals. The show used young 16-25 year olds to portray the characters who age to their 40s.
New Yorkers turned against it before the musical ever opened, sharing tales of issues with the show, preview audiences couldn't follow the story, and people walked out mid-show. The show only ran for 16 performances. Skip ahead to 2016 and Broadway director (who was an actor in the original production) Lonny Price made a documentary on the film and it is pure JOY to watch.
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened shares the story of the making of this musical from how these young kids felt to what they are doing today. Price captures BEAUTIFULLY the joy of every theater kid who has dreamed of being on Broadway. I watched with a full heart as Sondheim himself attends a party in Price's family apartment and plays on of the new songs for the show on his piano. It is amazing and incredible for every little kid who lived with show posters on their bedroom wall. (Raises hand.) A theme of the musical is that life doesn't always take us where we think we're going and the documentary picks up on that as they talk to those actors all these years later to find where they are now. (Some stayed in the business; others didn't.)
I will admit I watched with tears in my eyes at points. Both from the love I have for theater, Sondheim, the hard working people that create ART as well as thinking about my own life. Fall of 2017 will mark 30 since I moved to NYC from Texas with suitcase in hand and stars in my eyes. Much like the people in this documentary, I look back on my life and see how the path twisted and turned in ways I never expected. I'm just three years away from the age Sondheim was when he was writing this musical and the words ring true - so true. We take for granted so much when we're young and it all goes by so quickly. If only we understood that when we were young and eager, but perhaps if we did...fear would paralyze us and we wouldn't believe we could do anything.
If you have Netflix, the documentary is streaming now and I can't recommend it enough. If you love theater. If you want to understand why people are so upset that a certain administration wants to attack the arts. If you want to witness how a Broadway musical takes form - it's all there.
As I write this blog, I realize it's Stephen Sondheim's birthday and I must wish him a very happy one. For all the joy he has brought so many with his writing through his entire career. I cherish a note he responded to me in the early 90s when I invited him to a staged reading of one of my own musicals and he couldn't attend. He is a genius of a writer, a nurturing individual to younger artists, and a legend that America is lucky to have as part of the landscape of this glorious thing we call musical theater.