Monday, March 27, 2017

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, Lonnie Price's documentary on the making of Merrily We Roll Along, is jammed with treasures, such as footage of auditions, rehearsals, and performances from the original production and then-and-now interviews with members of the original cast. What a disappointment, then, that it's not a particularly good movie.

It might have hit me differently if I knew less about Merrily. But I know a lot about it, and I was annoyed by what the documentary left out. For example, at one point the movie refers to the successful productions after the original disaster. But no one mentions that it was extensively rewritten. I was also annoyed that so many cast members were barely mentioned or not mentioned at all. Surely it's worth a few seconds to acknowledge the presence of Liz Calloway and Giancarlo Esposito? It certainly would have been a better use of the movie’s precious minutes than the cliché shots of spooling film and of Manhattan that Price uses instead.

The movie also might have hit me differently if I cared more about Lonnie Price's personal story, which he uses as a framing device. Early in the film, he uses a longish excerpt from an interview that he did when he got cast in Merrily. Then, at the end, he repeats it! I get that he's echoing Merrily's structure of going from the present to the past, but seeing the excerpt a second time is kind of, well, tedious. And, again, it’s taking up time that could have been spent on more old footage or interviews with other cast members. And he easily could have echoed Merrily by ending on "Behold the Hills of Tomorrow," as did the original show.

Lonnie Price, Ann Morrison, Jim Walton
Original Cast, Merrily We Roll Along

The movie is also sloppy with details. For example, Jim Walton and some other cast members sing "Growing Up" toward the end of the movie. It nicely encapsulates the trajectory of the documentary, but it wasn’t in the original production—worth mentioning? And I'm pretty sure that when the wonderful Ann Morrison is talking about Sondheim asking her what her range was, the singer heard in the background is Sally Klein rather than Morrison. 

The biggest missed opportunity, however, is a simple “Where are they now?” ending. Would it have been so difficult to cover every performer? All that would be needed is a then picture and a now picture and a line or two about where their lives went. Wouldn't it be worth mentioning that Tonya Pinkins has a Tony, was brilliant in Caroline, Or Change, and does a lot of TV? Or that Giancarlo Esposito has had an exciting career full of TV and movies? The film does mention that some of the cast became teachers, psychologists, etc., but which ones?

I get why Best Worst Thing got such positive reviews. The footage is amazing, and it's moving to learn how some people's lives have unfolded. (And you have to love the performer who, when asked why she went into theater, said, “I wanted to sleep with Kevin Kline.”) But underneath those two pluses, the movie is much damaged by its structure and sloppiness. What should be an exciting 90 or so minutes is frequently lackluster.

Of course, I'm still really, really glad it exists.


If you want to know more about Merrily itself, here’s a couple of good places to start: general backgroundSondheim’s guilt feelings.


Wendy Caster
(watched on Amazon; $2.99)


msdworks said...

I agree with you about the too much Lonny and not enough others. And too, I so am glad this documentary exists.

I not like you did not know that Liz Calloway was part of the cast and was so surprised to see a very young, very cute Giancarlo Esposito. And I too would have wished to hear from everyone else in the cast. And Tonya Pinkins! Wow.

At the end of the film, I let it run to the very, very last bit, just on the chance that the faces, names, befores and afters and doing what was about to roll pass. That did not happen and that was a real let down.

Did Mr. Price make the movie for his own benefit and not ours?

You are so much better at knowing the details. Happy you reviewed the movie and read about what I missed

That said, much was sweet.

Wendy Caster said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment!