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Howard Sherman: Why I was overcome watching the Best Worst Thing movie trailer

Jim Walton, Ann Morrison and Lonny Price on the set of Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened
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Among the regrets of my theatregoing life, missing the original Broadway production of Merrily We Roll Along ranks high on the list.

I was in my second year at university, and my drama club friends were planning to see it together over the extended Christmas and new year break. But as musical theatre fans know, the show ran for only 16 performances after opening (following 44 ever-changing previews), and didn’t even last into December. By many accounts, I wouldn’t necessarily have liked what I’d have seen. But the cast recording, which I still cherish, convinced me I’d have treasured the experience.

That’s not to say I am Merrily deficient. I have several recordings of the score and have seen multiple productions of the show over the years, the most recent and transcendent having been Maria Friedman’s production, which realised on stage the emotional resonance I feel every time I listen to the original Broadway cast recording. There has been a lot of tinkering with Merrily over the years and, while the London production was missing some songs I love, the overall experience was deeply satisfying.

Consequently, I thought I had some sense of closure with Merrily – until I saw the trailer for the documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, which chronicles the original Broadway show and its cast. In a little over two minutes, the clips from the film and the Stephen Sondheim score brought up all of the regret once again. I’ve probably never been so moved by an extended movie commercial – and on YouTube, no less.

The film is an inside job, so to speak, because it is directed by Lonny Price, who originated the role of Charley Kringas in Merrily. Price also doubles as a mostly off-screen interviewer of his former castmates, as well as of Sondheim and Harold Prince, to whom the film is dedicated.

Aided immeasurably by extensive footage that was shot for an unaired television documentary during the show’s audition, rehearsal and preview periods – material long thought lost – Best Worst Thing captures Merrily’s youthful cast back in the early 1980s, all impossibly young (though I was their age at the same time).

But like a two-act play, Best Worst Thing is bifurcated – between the history and the present day, with archival clips sharing the screen with a number of cast members recalling what was both a thrilling and ultimately profoundly disappointing experience.

We watch as a young Price earnestly tells an interviewer during rehearsals: “If I never do anything again in my whole life, I will have had this moment.” Later, as cast members converse with Price about their lives post-Merrily, one admits “we were damaged by it”, referring to the show’s sudden closure. Another observes that “one of the lessons of adulthood is disappointment”, a lesson the company learned perhaps a bit sooner than most.

As I watched these actors, my contemporaries and our mutual idols, it was simply impossible not to review my own theatrical career, for better and worse

While less comprehensive, Best Worst Thing echoes Michael Apted’s septannual TV documentary series Up, with a decidedly theatrical flavour. But what the film echoes most is Merrily itself, a story about how friends lose track of each other and their dreams, but told in reverse so that we end with them at the peak of their idealism in the show’s closing moments. Best Worst Thing is told more or less chronologically, but even as the cast members – including Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander – talk about their lives today, with various ups and downs, we see not only the vagaries of life, but also life in the theatre.

For some, we see life after theatre. Perhaps the most surprising appearance is that of James Weissenbach, the young actor who was fired from the leading role of Franklin Shepard during previews, who is obviously now at sufficient peace with what must have been unbearable at the time to chat amiably with Price in the present day.

As I watched these actors, my contemporaries and our mutual idols – many of whom I’ve come to know – it was simply impossible not to review my own theatrical career, for better and worse.

Presumably, Best Worst Thing will immediately vault on to most lists of the very best theatrical documentaries. But I’m hoping that it vaults on to the curriculums of theatre programs and acting schools, because it is a very rare film about theatre that shows the incredible highs and lows of theatrical life through young people with stars in their eyes as they realise their greatest dreams so very young, only to have them go awry, yet survive.

Late in the film, we watch Price as he views footage of himself back in 1981. An offscreen companion asks first what he thinks of the young man he was and then, intuitively, what he thinks that young man would think of the Lonny Price he became. Price is overcome.

Best Worst Thing will cause anyone aspiring to or making a career in the theatre, as well as those who once harboured dreams or stepped away after a time, to think hard about those questions, in the very best way: set to a Sondheim score.

This week in US theatre

A popular and critical success at both Arena Stage in Washington DC and then Off-Broadway at Second Stage, Dear Evan Hansen opens on Broadway on December 4, marking the start of a very big week for the songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Just five days later, their film musical (as lyricists) La La Land opens with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, already the subject of advance acclaim from festival screenings.

The Bodyguard makes its official US premiere on December 4 at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. Deborah Cox plays Rachel Marron and Judson Mills has the title role, directed by Thea Sharrock. It runs at Paper Mill through the end of the year, after which it embarks on a national tour beginning in Minneapolis.

Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Winter’s Tale, directed by Declan Donnellan, makes a brief New York stop next week, playing six performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from December 6 to 11 as part of the Next Wave Festival.

The Band’s Visit, the newest musical from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels composer-lyricist David Yazbek, makes its debut on December 8 at the Atlantic Theatre Company Off-Broadway. With a book by Itamar Moses and directed by David Cromer, it’s adapted from the film about an Egyptian police band stranded in a remote Israeli town and the relationships that develop between the musicians and the local residents.

A new Off-Broadway adaptation of James Joyce, The Dead, 1904, from the Irish Repertory Theatre, is charging $300, $500 and $1,000 a ticket, but not because it has Hamilton-scale dreams. In this case, tickets are even scarcer, because the limited run will be performed in an authentic Victorian mansion for a small audience each night, moving through the site with the cast, dining with them and some even seated with them at table. It opens on December 8 and plays only through the beginning of January.

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