screen gems

How a gay, musical genius created one of Broadway’s biggest bombs

The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Meta: The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened

The world continues to mourn the loss of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim last month, a man who changed the face of musical theatre several times over. Yet one of Sondheim’s most interesting projects proved a bit less than successful. In fact, its original Broadway staging was a downright disaster.

Merrily We Roll Along debuted in 1981 and ran for an anemic 16 performances. The show’s concept involved telling a story backward: the characters introduced as middle-aged at the beginning of the show would become teenagers by the end. In a twist, Sondheim and director Harold Prince also decided to cast youthful, inexperienced actors to underline the burgeoning, youthful spirit of the characters. Audiences and critics, however, found said conceit less than engaging, and the story impossible to follow. In the ensuing years, Merrily would become something of a cult show thanks to its notorious production history, and arguably, Sondheim’s richest score.

Flash forward almost 40 years. Lonny Price, one of the show’s original leads, had moved on to a career as a stage director. He decided to also try his hand at filmmaking, directing this documentary about the show and its most peculiar legacy. The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened recounts the failure of Merrily on Broadway, as told through interviews with Sondheim, Prince, and much of the original cast. Price also examines how experiencing failure so young shaped the show’s performers. Some, like Jason Alexander and Tonya Pinkins (whose lack of screentime here is a head-scratcher), would go on to thrive in showbiz. Other actors would call it a career not long after Merrily closed.

This premise and Price’s talking-head-interview approach would make for a run-of-the-mill Broadway documentary on their own. Yet something extraordinary happened during production of the movie. In the editing phase, a team of researchers uncovered undeveloped film footage for an aborted documentary on Merrily covering everything from the audition phase to opening night. Price included the archival footage of the young cast talking about the show and their hopes for the future, and the result is uncanny in the way it mirrors the concept of the original show.

In other words, The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened essentially is Merrily We Roll Along, executed with success.

The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened ranks as one of the best documentaries on Broadway and life upon the wicked stage that we’ve seen. The stories contained here–leading actors fired, audience walkouts, stardom achieved after setbacks, failure experienced by the mega-successful–weave a tapestry of the fickle nature of show business and the aching highs and lows of being a performer. Fans of showbiz tales, Sondheim, or theatre won’t want to miss this delightful, unique anatomy of a musical that wouldn’t die.

Streams on Netflix.