SEPTEMBER 7, 2017 – From an early age, some hear a clarion call and embark on life’s journey with an unswerving sense of direction. The rest of us meander, weaving our way past obstacles and opportunities, unguided by cosmic GPS and without evident heroes to light the way forward.
Broadway producer and director Lonny Price heard the call. Price grew up in New Jersey and New York City, a Jewish kid with an outsized love of musical theater, mesmerized by the magical duo of Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim. His 11th birthday was celebrated with tickets to “Company,” a Sondheim musical.
After LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts and a stint at Juilliard, Price launched headlong on his life path by responding to a rare open casting call for 14- to 21-year-olds who could act, sing, and dance. It drew thousands of young hopefuls. After weeks of winnowing, Price landed a leading role in “Merrily We Roll Along.” He was 21, he was on Broadway, and he was working alongside his heroes, Prince and Sondheim.
The musical – a daring adaptation of a 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart – would go on to become a beloved work, among the brightest stars in the Sondheim firmament. It has been performed countless times around the world and comes to the Huntington Avenue Theatre in Boston from Sept. 8 to Oct. 15 after a vibrant run in London.
In its original 1981 incarnation, however, audiences walked out during the first act, critics trashed it, and it closed after only 16 performances.
Whether the experience was more triumphant defeat or devastating triumph, it was life-changing for many of the young performers. Now, Lonny Price has produced and directed an entertaining documentary about the backstory and aftermath of those daunting days of swift ascent and equally speedy plunge. “Best Worse Thing That Ever Could Have Happened” is an intelligent and poignant examination of life’s turning points and choices. It is available on Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, and elsewhere.
“Best Worse Thing” mimics the architecture of “Merrily We Roll Along” in tracing events in reverse order. Price knew all along that he wanted to end the film with the moment that changed his life, with that first “You got the job.”
It took nine years to figure out how to do that just right. “No project should ever take that long,” he said.
To Price, the original “Merrily We Roll Along” was not so much a failure as a production in need of more development. “You never stop revising things,” he said. “The theater is a very living, fluid form. You get to constantly tinker, until you die.” He laughed. “Then your heirs get to tinker.”
Is that what drew you to it, what keeps you in this art form, I asked?
“I like to make things,” he said. “At the end, when the show opens, I get to say, ‘Look, I made a hat, where there never was a hat.’” He is quoting his [and my] favorite Sondheim work, “Sunday in the Park with George,” in which the need to leave things behind, to move on to the new, is thematic. The problem is, along the way so many sell out or lose the spark. “What happens to youthful optimism?” asked Price. “Everyone starts out dewy-eyed. Then …”
Near the end of the documentary, Price is seen in a distilled and defining moment as he tears up watching a film clip of himself as a naïve 20-something. “It’s about looking at your younger self and forgiving it,” he said. “And finding a way to embrace it.
“When are you ever going to get material that good again? [Sondheim] writes [the song] ‘Franklin Shepard, Inc.’ for you, to the skills you have. … I had three good notes, and he kept hitting them. He knew where I lived. Who’s going to get a suit that beautiful again? I just wanted to wear it more.
“That wasn’t going to happen again, and it didn’t. You learn not to invest quite that much in any one thing. … Nothing will mean that much to me again. But, then, I’ll never be 21 again. Now my life is so much more complicated, thank God, and no one thing is everything.”
Making the documentary delivered fresh rewards. “Collaboration is everything,” Price said. “I don’t think of the film as mine; I see everybody’s hand on every frame. You learn as you get older the best experiences are collaborative, where the best idea wins and it doesn’t have to be yours.”