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Review: Documentary ‘Best Worst Thing ...’ chronicles the rare Stephen Sondheim flop

‘Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened’
Jim Walton, left, Ann Morrison and Lonny Price revisit the original Broadway theater where they starred in “Merrily We Roll Along” in the documentary “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.”
(Atlas Media)

The superb documentary “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” directed by Lonny Price, covers a rich swath of emotional and creative ground as it tracks the unexpected failure of theater gods Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince’s hugely anticipated 1981 Broadway collaboration “Merrily We Roll Along.”

The troubled show about youthful dreams and adult realities, told in perhaps ill-conceived reverse chronology, was based on the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and featured lyrics and music by Sondheim, a book by George Furth and direction by Prince.

Although “Merrily” closed after 16 performances, over the years it became a beloved, oft-performed cult musical, fueled by fan love for its original Tony-nominated score, many sanctioned staging changes and several new Sondheim songs. (A production opens Nov. 30 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.)

The project’s roller-coaster history is told via fabulous archival footage shot during “Merrily’s” initial casting, rehearsal and performance phases, as well as by warm, insightful recent interviews with Sondheim, Prince and such original cast members (all of whom were in their teens and 20s in 1981) as Jason Alexander, Price, Jim Walton, Ann Morrison, Terry Finn, Tonya Pinkins, Abby Pogrebin and Daisy Prince.

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How the then-newbie performers’ jackpot roles in the heady, heartbreaking show informed their lives and careers forms much of the movie’s stirring narrative spine. The cast’s reunion in 2002, along with Sondheim and Prince, at a rousing “Merrily” benefit concert, is also wonderfully captured.

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‘Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened’

Not rated

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Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles

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