In 1979 composer Stephen Sondheim’s legendary partnership with director Hal Prince was on a real role. The two had very successfully collaborated on the Broadway productions of Company , Follies ,A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and now Sweeney Todd which won them a total of 8 Tony Awards.
Empowered by this success Sondheim, always known for his diverse and unusual sources for his musicals, decided that he and Prince would work on a fearless concept — a musical about a composer, a lyricist, and a critic all growing into middle age, but cast with actors who look young enough to be in a high-school musical. And to complicate things further they would tell the story going back in time with the characters starting old and then in each act regressing back 5/10 years at the time.
One of the ambitious young actors who got his first big break by being cast in the Show was Lonny Price, who is now one of the most successful directors on Broadway. It is Price who is now helming this documentary about the whole story about how the highly anticipated ‘Merrily We Roll Around‘ became a colossal flop that closed after 13 performances.
Price managed to eventually get his hands on archival footage from an abandoned ABC documentary which had filmed the whole backstage story at the time. It shows the sheer excitement of the very young cast (aged between 16 and 25) who were over the moon at getting their first break on Broadway show in a Sondheim no less.
There were the usual pressures in rehearsal as Prince’s standards were very high, but all seemed well until their out-of-town tryouts and the audiences actually walked out in droves. This resulted in daily rewrites with huge swathes of the script being abandoned, and even one of the young leads being replaced.
The Press got wind that all was not well, but come Opening Night everybody was on such a high. With long-standing ovations, they could be forgiven for thinking that all was well after all. That feeling however was very short lived as when the Reviews came out the next morning they were unanimously brutal. It proved that Sondheim never did anything by halves as he didn’t just enjoy the finest successes but even his failures were unmatchable.
Price interviewed many of his ex-colleagues to discover how their brief 13 night run on Broadway shaped their future lives. Several chose to leave theatre entirely as a result but others like Jim Walton had considerable success in on and off-Broadway musicals.. Jason Alexander won a Tony in 1989 in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway which propelled him into playing George Costanza in the television series Seinfeld.
In 2002 Price was responsible for bringing the original cast back together for a crucial one-night concert revival of “Merrily We Roll Along. Their wonderful camaraderie was still very much in evidence, and that is one of underlying messages of this documentary, that there may be some slight tinges of regret, but overall everyone considered this time in their lives , one of their best.
Price has become something of Sondheim exponent having now directed revivals of almost all of his musicals ……. except for Merrily. Time and opinions have changed and Merrilly has now had countless successful productions around the globe, and in London it even won Best Musical Award.
The documentary is a must-see for any Sondheim fan, and any lovers of musical theater. Price lets the story unfold naturally and it tells itself unheeded, which makes it very compelling viewing.
One point to note though is that Sondheim and Prince ended the magical partnership after this flop and never ever worked together again.