Saturday, 29 May 2021

A Moving Musical Documentary on Netflix

I watched a very moving documentary on Netflix last week:
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, which tells a story of the highly anticipated original Broadway production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, and its immediate failure. The 2016 documentary was directed by Lonny Price, one of the production’s main cast members, and he interviews Sondheim, the production’s director, Hal Prince, a number of his castmates, and two notable audience members who saw the original run. I watched the movie as someone very interested in the work of Sondheim, and came away from it deeply touched by the experiences and perspectives of the people it features.

The documentary’s setting is the musical theatre of Broadway in the early 80s, but its subject is the expectations and frustrations – the dreams and subsequent hard reality – of any young person starting out in life. This happens to be a theme of the musical Merrily We Roll Along as well, and the plot, as relayed by Sondheim and Prince, is an apt parallel for the stories told by the once-young-and-aspiring real-life performers that Price interviews.

Sondheim and Prince had hired a cast of young performers, in their late teens and early 20s, each of whom was making their debut on Broadway, and who couldn’t have been more thrilled by the entire experience, including that of being a part of the history of their heroes. Price engagingly includes himself in the telling of the story, as well as the story of how the documentary got made, in part.

The show’s failure (closing after just 16 performances) had a devastating impact on all the documentary’s subjects, even Sondheim and Prince. Some of the young performers tell of struggling in a tough and competitive industry, one famous one struck on enviable success, and at least one left the acting profession entirely. More than the details of the production or what came after, the most engaging aspect of the entire movie is the affecting care and attention that Price pays to the people involved. The then-young performers are now all much older, and each carries a wealth of experience that’s instantly evoked in their interviews.

The weight of emotion that comes with that experience is brought poignantly to the movie’s forefront, and the documentary becomes a story that mirrors that of the show: Young people with big dreams transform into baffled, worldly, and keenly emotional older people. The tender observation – call it Love – with which Price shows their stories (including his own) is what enriches those emotions, and turns his documentary into a powerful experience.