Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (documentary)

Lonny Price, Ann Morrison and Jim Walton
(Merrily We Roll Along, 1981)
A documentary on the creation of Hamilton would, of course, be very exciting, especially if you are a fan of Hamilton.

But it wouldn't have much of a dramatic arc, would it? Acclaimed young theater artist sets out to create a musical based on the life of a little-regarded figure from American history ... and he succeeds.

Wouldn't you be more interested in the creation of Moose Murders?

Well, they haven't made that film yet. But I remember seeing Moon Over Broadway, the Pennebaker/Hegedus documentary about the creation of Ken Ludwig's farce, Moon Over Buffalo. That production, though an eventual success, was initially hampered by set-backs and interpersonal tension which makes for compelling backstage drama.

Netflix, which has apparently cornered the market on quirky, at-home theatrical events like the Disney musical Newsies and Oh Hello On Broadway, has made available Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. Directed by Lonny Price, this is a film about the original and ill-fated 1981 production of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. Mr. Price knows a great deal on the subject, as he was one of that production's starring performers.

Time has been extremely kind to Merrily We Roll Along, and several Sondheim's standards were created for it, including "Old Friends," "Our Time," and "Not a Day Goes By."

Adapted from the 1931, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart classic of the same name, the story follows the lives of a trio of friends, writers and performers, from aspirational youth to jaded success and disappointment-- only going backwards, scene by scene, from middle-age to college graduation.

Sondheim's musical follows this same reverse-chronological timeline. As if that conceit weren't challenging enough, the Broadway premiere of was cast with a team of very young performers, to play aged at the beginning of the play, and younger as they go.

When the production closed after only sixteen performances, we can lament the end of the professional team of Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince … but you know they've done just fine. What of the company, the eldest only twenty-five, and some as young as sixteen?

Joseph Dunn
(These Are The Times, 2013)
Their lives in the time since may provide meaningful solace to those given to regret of the road not traveled. The lead performers went on to good lives as actors, educators, and journalists … but even Merrily company member Jason Alexander, featured performer in the wildly successful sit-com Seinfeld, even he has regrets over the failure of this important first work in their careers.

I was describing the documentary to my twelve year-old son as I walked him to the bus stop this morning. "Huh," he said. "Sounds like the plot of the musical."

Tomorrow night I host a private reading of a newly revised version of These Are The Times, my Cleveland history play which received a workshop at Cleveland Public Theatre almost five years ago.

The first act of Times is presented as a Federal Theater Project “Living Newspaper,” presenting the events of 1936 -- and in the 2013 workshop these events also occur in reverse-chronological order, as in Kaufman & Hart’s Merrily We Roll Along, which was produced at the Cleveland Play House that year. There's even a reference to the Play House production during one scene in the act, as if explaining that show would give the conceit additional clarity.

“It’s just too complicated to tell a story backwards,” laments Hal Prince in Best Worst Thing.

In the newly revised version, my first act now proceeds in proper chronological order. Note taken, Mr. Prince. Note taken.

No comments:

Post a Comment