I am, always have been and always will be, a musical theater buff. Or maybe musical theater fanatic is more like it. I’m sure that anyone who knows me would second that motion. Many is the time when someone would say something that would prompt me to sing a well known, and sometimes not so well known, impromptu show tune. Invariably they’d ask me to stop.
I remember someone said they were from Iowa and I started singing “Iowa Stubborn” from The Music Man. If I pass by a steam grate I’ll almost certainly start singing “Steam Heat” from The Pajama Game. If I don’t want someone to feel sorry for me I might say “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” Sometimes I reference something more obscure. Once when someone mentioned Radio City Music Hall I found myself singing “I Wanna Be A Rockette.” You’re probably not familiar with that song because it’s from a show that was never produced called Kicks.
Of course, not everyone likes musicals. Some people down right hate them. I don’t know what to do about those poor unfortunate souls. Most people enjoy a night out at the theater and have a cast album or two in their record collection or on their playlist. And then there are those fanatics like myself who will try to see as many shows as possible, even when his funds are low. Who tries to track down every cast album in existence and has read just about every book ever written on the subject (and there are quite a few!). The problem is that we never really seem to accept the fact that other people on this planet don’t quite share the same passion for musical theater that we do.
Being a theater buff has its drawbacks mind you. There aren’t many cities like New York and London where there’s a constant selection of plays, musicals and other entertainment to choose from every night of the week. It cost a lot to see a show on Broadway or even Off-Broadway. No, you don’t have to pay $600.00 to see a show, that’s just for premium day-of-the-performance tickets. There are websites like Stub Hub that let you buy discount tickets to shows and many have rush ticket policies and lotteries. For several years I worked as an usher for two of the biggest theater chains on Broadway. I got to see shows and get paid for it! It wasn’t great pay but most of the shows were great (Some weren’t. Some were bad. But hey, variety is the spice of life).
Yet in many ways the very thing that makes theater so wonderful is also it’s greatest liability, and that’s its ephemeral quality. Paintings, books, sculpture; movies, television shows and architecture are crystalized mediums, meant to exist as they are through time immortal. Music could be considered a bit of a gray area. Until Thomas Edison invented the phonograph the only way you could hear music was for someone to play or sing the tune, which was preserved on paper with notes. Certainly most music is best when heard live but there are instances like with Sgt. Pepper and The White Album that the record itself is the work of art.
Theater, on the other hand, is always performed live and in the flesh. All art is about communication and the observer is always the final collaborator, but theater is the one art form that only exists now. Each performance of a play is like a snowflake; no two will ever be exactly the same. Sometimes actors are indisposed for one reason or another but as the old saying goes “the show must go on” and so an understudy will cover the roll. If a show is successful and runs a long time then other actors will inevitably take over. When a show closes the scenery ends up in a dumpster, the costumes are either packed into the mothballs or sent to the Goodwill and the actors, stage hands, musicians, etc. will go on to do other things. But if the play or musical has an afterlife then not only will new actors get to re-interpret the rolls but new directors will come up with new ideas and new ways of bringing the work to life, new scenery will be designed, sometimes new material will be written. Other shows will just vanish into the ether.
When a play closes then the DNA sample that will allow it to be revived is the written text of the playwright. Thousands of plays stretching all the way back to Euripides have been commercially published over the years. Even shows with painfully short runs might get their text printed and the rights to the show optioned in the hopes that another theater company or scholastic theater department will give it another chance. The same goes for musicals. Both Musical Theater International and the Samuel French Company have a whole catalogue of musicals that can be licensed and indeed some very popular titles make a fortune in fees. I knew somebody who shared an agent with Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, the creators of Grease. Their mutual agent sent them a check every month for a million dollars, each!
A printed text is not a great delivery system for a musical mind you. If you’re unfamiliar with the music then reading the lyrics on the page can be a bore. The main lifeline for a musical has pretty much always been the cast recording. Here you can listen to the original actors singing and give you the gist of what their performances were like on stage. While just about every show since World War II that’s been a commercial success has had a cast album issued there are quite a few flops, and even a few shows that never even made it to the stage, that have recordings. Goddard Lieberson was the president of Columbia Records, which specialized in cast recordings in the fifties and sixties. He had a great ear and a good sense of what shows were unusual quality. He once convinced Columbia’s parent company, CBS, to finance My Fair Lady in exchange for the recording rights. My Fair Lady became a monster hit and its cast album was at one time the best selling LP of all time.
Lieberson also believed that there were shows that weren’t successful that warranted a cast album. Among the flops he had recorded were The Golden Apple, Candide, Drat the Cat and Flora the Red Menace. All of these shows developed a cult following amongst theater enthusiasts and in many cases went on to have a second life in regional or amateur theaters.
A term that is well known among theater buffs is “flop collector”. Millions of people have seen The Lion King, Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera. Sure, it’s hard to get tickets to Hamilton right now but it’s success guarantees that it’s gonna be around for a while. Be patient, you’ll get to see it. But seeing a show that only ran in the single or double digits, now that’s something to brag about.
The infamous Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark had a pretty robust run even though it’s losses probably equaled the GDP of Luxemburg. But how many people got to see Legs Diamond, an utterly horrific catastrophe starring Peter Allen as a gangster? Or how about Rockabeye Hamlet starring a young Beverly DeAngelo and Meatloaf. This show had such unforgettable (in the wrong way) songs like “He Got It In The Ear”, “The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Boogie” and had Ophelia strangle herself with the chord from her microphone? In 1965 Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlin appeared in a musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The show had a terrible out-of-town tryout and David Merrick, the shows producer, closed the New York production while still in previews. He told the press that he was saving the public the indignity of having to see such a bad show. He also quipped that the eponymous Manhattan jewelry store offered to compensate the losses but that Cartier wanted him to keep it open. Probably no show has more cache then Carrie, a 1988 fiasco based on the Stephen King novel. If everyone who claimed to have seen it actually bought tickets the show would still be running.
Then there are shows that didn’t really work the first time around but, thanks in no small part to their cast album, the show went on to be rediscovered and revived by it’s admirers. There are quite a few of these. I already mentioned Candide, a musical based on the Voltaire novel written by Leonard Bernstein. It was given a Broadway revival that ran for two years! Jerry Herman, the composer-lyricist behind Hello Dolly! and La Cage Aux Folles had a major flop in 1974 with Mack and Mabel. Thankfully it produced a wonderful cast album and has had a number of other productions, including a very successful, full scale revival in London. The Seussical was a musical hodgepodge of various Dr. Seuss stories that was given a cut-rate production on Broadway but has thrived in youth theaters. Side Show told the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who achieved fame in vaudeville. It developed a devoted following but couldn’t meet expenses when it opened on Broadway and it closed after just a few weeks. Yet it immediately found a home in regional theaters and has even received a Broadway revival, albeit an unsuccessful one.
Few musicals that failed on Broadway had more of an afterlife, are more treasured or were more of heartbreak for those involved with it then Merrily We Roll Along. This 1981 musical ran for just sixteen performances after a long and troubled preview period. It got a lot of (negative) attention because the show was brought to the stage by two of the giants of the Great White Way: Composer-Lyricist Stephen Sondheim and Producer-Director Harold Prince. Many along Broadway were baffled (and a small group of haters delighted) that two of the most talented and astute theater professionals could ever be responsible for such a theatrical miscalculation.
First, a bit of background information: Stephen Sondheim is considered by many to be the greatest songwriter in Broadway history. Still alive and working today, he is a protégé of Oscar Hammerstein II of Rogers and Hammerstein fame. Though he’s always considered himself a composer first and lyricist second, he made his debut on Broadway writing the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music on a little something called West Side Story. The show wasn’t a massive hit when it opened. Many were either baffled by the shows perceived esoterica or were turned off by the violence and ugly subject matter. But more then enough people liked the show and it had a successful two-year run. Four years later the film version came out, which was a massive hit. West Side Story has been a staple of the American Stage ever since.
He hoped to write both music and lyrics with his next show, Gypsy (1959). Alas the shows star, the great Ethel Merman, demanded an experienced composer, so Sondheim ended up again writing only the lyrics. Gypsy once again was a modest hit that has since become one of the most frequently performed and revered musicals of all time. The problem was that Sondheim was now typecast solely as a lyricist. He finally got to hear his music and words played together in the uproariously humorous A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). The show was a major hit and even won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Yet in a slight that seems downright ludicrous in retrospect, Sondheim wasn’t even nominated for best musical score. Fortunately, he would compensate for that and then some in the not-too-distant future.
Whereas Stephen Sondheim was protégé of Oscar Hammerstein, Hal Prince was a protégé of George Abbott. Broadways top musical theater director from the thirties into the sixties, Prince went to work for Abbott as an office assistant and quickly worked his way up to working as a stage manager. At just twenty-six years old he managed to co-produce his first musical, The Pajama Game. It turned out to be the biggest hit of the season (it didn’t hurt that mentor Abbott directed it). He then went on an amazing winning streak, producing such hits as Damn Yankees, Fiorello!, and the monster hit Fiddler on the Roof. Prince also produced both West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum. Yet just as Sondheim yearn to write music as well as lyrics, Prince hoped to direct as well as produce. He cut his teeth directing shows like She Love’s Me, Baker Street and It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman. All of these shows were well directed but for one reason or another they didn’t click. Then came Cabaret, a challenging musical about Wiemar Germany and it’s surrender to fascism. It was both a landmark and a hit. There was no turning back.
Then in the seventies the two men teamed up to create five of the most remarkable musicals the American Theater has ever seen. They weren’t the eras biggest hits. They didn’t click with the public the way that shows like Pippin, A Chorus Line and Annie did, but they certainly found an audience and each and every one of them propelled the art of the musical forward.
First came Company, a landmark show that explored the complications of marriage through the eyes of a confirmed bachelor. What made it remarkable was that while it had a story and characters there was no plot and it wasn’t structured like a traditional three act play. The show was sort of a mid-point between a book musical and a revue. Next came Follies, another plot-less musical that used a reunion middle-aged and elderly performers who had appeared in a faux Ziegfeld Follies as a metaphor for the disillusionment that comes with age and disappointment in the decisions that one makes. A Little Night Music was an intricately plotted, sophisticated modern operetta about love, sex and infidelity. Pacific Overtures dealt with the United States forcing Japan into trade agreements by way of gunboat diplomacy. The evening was presented as if it were a kabuki theater piece, one that slowly morphs into a Broadway musical the more westernized Japan becomes.
Their fifth and in the long run most famous collaboration was Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This show took a Victorian melodrama about a barber who slits the throats of his patrons and grinds them up into meat pies. Under Prince’s capable direction it became a parable about the dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution and the viscous cycle that can come about when one is consumed with a need for revenge and violence. Again, these shows were not huge hits and not all of them made money. But they showed the world that a musical could challenge an audience without sacrificing showmanship.
After Sweeny Todd Prince’s wife suggested to him that he should do a show about kids, particularly since he had two smart teenage children whom he was very close to. He ran with that suggestion and remembered a 1934 play by George S. Kauffman and Moss Hart called Merrily We Roll Along. The play dealt with a successful but bitter playwright who has made a mess of his life and explores how he created the abyss he’s fallen into. What was unique about the play is that much as Harold Pinter would do many years later in Betrayal, the action moves backwards in time, opening and 1934 and ending in the halcyon days of 1916 when he and his friends were all young and full of promise. Prince suggested that it to Stephen Sondheim as the basis for a musical. George Furth, who had already done wonders with unconventional dramatic structure in his book for Company was hired to write the libretto. The show was a go.
As Sondheim and Furth wrote the show, Prince, never at a loss for unique ideas, came up with the unprecedented notion that since this was a show about the follies of youth, why not cast the show with teenagers? It was an unorthadox idea but one that his collaborators liked. And so a casting call went out for young performers age sixteen through twenty. By now Sondheim and Prince were Gods to young musical theater enthusiasts and nearly every kid with a headshot showed up for the cattle call audition.
One of the youngsters who auditioned was Lonny Price. A nebbish from New Jersey, Price was like a lot of shy, introverted kid who found acceptance on the stage, appearing in school and youth theater productions. When he was still in high school he wrote Stephen Sondheim a fan letter. To his amazement, Sondheim wrote back! A year later he wrote Harold Prince asking him for a job. Prince hired him as an office boy. Price even invested in Pacific Overtures by cashing in his bar mitzvah bonds.
You might not know the name Lonny Price but there’s a good chance you have seen him before. He appeared in a couple of memorable movies. In The Muppets Take Manhattan he was the young kid who produces Kermit the Frog’s show. In Dirty Dancing he played one of the Jewish kids who befriends Jennifer Gray. Eventually Price segued into directing. Most recently he had a major success on Broadway directing Glenn Close in an acclaimed revival of Sunset Boulevard.
At one point Price had the idea of making a documentary based on Merrily We Roll Along; the only problem was where could he get footage of the show that could be used in a documentary? For many years any filmed documentation of a stage show was nonexistent. When television came in then variety shows, most notably The Ed Sullivan Show invited the casts of current shows to perform. It was great advertising but rarely more then one or two numbers were performed and only a few shows were given the chance. In 1966 the Tony Awards went from only being broadcast locally in New York to the entire country. Still, only the shows nominated for the top prizes got to perform and in those pre-VCR days you really only had one chance to see them.
Beginning in the early seventies the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts founded the Theater on Film and Tape Archive. Deals were struck with the Actors Equity and other trade unions to record a certain performance of the show archive. Over the years they have assembled a treasure-trove of theatrical records, not just from Broadway but Off-Broadway, regional theaters, all kinds of stuff. I can’t begin to tell you how many shows I’ve been privileged to see, at least in it’s archived form. Like seeing a painting in a art book, it’s not the same as seeing the real thing in person, but it’s at least a second best and at least you can get a good idea as to how it worked on stage. Yet the reason that the unions have allowed these productions to be recorded is because none of the tapes can leave the library. The public can view them, but only at a viewing station. Records are kept of everyone who views these tapes and each guest can only view each recorded performance once.
In more recent years social media has suddenly made the theater more accessible to the public well beyond the tri-state area. Tony Award performances are now instantly available on YouTube. Electronic Press Kits are put together and shown on promotional web sites, giving people an up close look at how these shows were made. On the downside, many a theater patron has recorded an entire show on their phone and posted it on-line. A shows legal department has to keep an eye out and delete any of these usually unwatchable pirated videos. Still, the advantages outweigh the drawbacks in the digital age.
None of this existed in 1981 when Merrily We Roll Along opened. The show wasn’t asked to perform at the Tony’s because the show had long since closed by the time the awards were given out. Price could interview the actors and other people involved with the show but other then production stills there wasn’t much of the actual production that one could see.
Alas, there was sufficient interest in Merrily We Roll Along that ABC-TV approached Hal Prince about filming a TV special about the shows journey to the stage. After the show flopped the project was scrapped and the footage was locked away in storage. Price tried to locate the raw material but it seemed to have been lost. Then all of the sudden an ABC archivist found the footage. Now he could make his movie.
We see footage from the audition with lines of fresh-faced kids lining up, belting out songs like “Poor Johnny One Note” and learning a few dance steps to see how well they move. We get to see that magical moment when only a handful of them remain and Hal Prince tells them “the good news is, your all in the show,” followed by sheer joy and euphoria as these young people who don’t even know each other yet embrace. There’s the read through, the first time the actors get to play their roles, at least verbally, while Sondheim plays and sings the songs. By all accounts it looked like they were on to something.
There’s the rehearsal process, which of course can be grueling but for young kids with lots of stamina and who are eager to please the exhaustion is exhilarating. Friendships form during rehearsal, as do romances. Cast member Jim Walton started dating a young lady in the cast named Janie Gleason. Shortly after they opened (and shortly before they closed), Gleason told Walton that she was pregnant. They were married right on the stage in between performances. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the marriage didn’t last.
Price and James Weissenbach, both of whom were cast in the two lead roles, had birthdays very close together. They decided to have a dual birthday party and also decided to invite the entire cast. Weissenbach suggested that they invite Hal and Steve. He did, not expecting them to accept the invitation. Amazingly they did. After arriving Sondheim asked Price if he had a piano? He led Sondheim into his bedroom – lined with posters from his shows – and the maestro began to play “Good Thing Going”, one of the loveliest tunes he would ever write and one that both Price and Weissenbach would perform in the show. Luckily, Price hit record on his Sony boom box.
Everything seemed like a dream. The rehearsal process was like something out of a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland “let’s put on a show” movie. It’s been said that you should never meet your hero’s but here were two of Broadway’s living legends and they were as generous and kind as can be. And yet at the end of the rainbow there wasn’t a pot of gold.
First preview. The cast is on stage behind the curtain. The overture starts up. It’s one of the most scintillating musical prologues they ever heard coming out of a Broadway pit. The show curtain goes up on a cast of performers, almost none of whom have reached legal drinking age. Yet they’re supposed to be playing jaded, melancholy showbiz phonies in their forties! Their wardrobe consists of T-shirts identifying their characters as “Best Friend”, “Producer”, “Ex-Wife”, etc. The whole thing looks like a high school production of Bye Bye Birdie, not a professional Broadway show. Its crystal clear to everyone that they’re in trouble.
Drastic cuts are made. New songs written and taken out. One thing that makes performing on stage so much more rewarding then on camera is that you get to actually here the laughter, gasps and applause of the audience. Unfortunately you can also hear dead silence where there should be a reaction and if people get up and leave you have to stay in character and try not to acknowledge them (I’ve heard stories about audiences booing but thankfully I’ve never seen it). Then a big bombshell was dropped when James Weissenbach, playing the lead role of Franklin Shepard was dismissed and replaced by fellow cast member Jim Walton. One can only guess what that did for morale, which was already sinking. Alas, there’s quite a bit of analogue footage of the show being performed and it’s pretty clear that at least when it came to movement James Weissenbach couldn’t cut it. We then see Jim Walton and frankly he does seem to be more in synch with the rest of the cast.
All of this was happening during the shows New York previews. Traditionally a preview was just that, a sneak peak for the public and a chance for the cast to get comfortable before the audience. It used to be a show would only get a couple of previews before they opened. That’s all they needed because just about every single show that ever opened on Broadway tried out in one or more city before coming into town. This way if the show was in trouble the necessary changes could be made away from prying eyes. The show could be fixed before they faced the firing squad of New York critics or, if it looked like it was irreparable, producers could cut their losses and close the show on the road.
By the 1970’s, things had changed. The escalating cost of producing a show meant that many shows didn’t get a tryout at all, so a show would instead play an extended preview period without going out of town. This made sense from an economic standpoint because you didn’t have to pay for hotel accommodations, transportation, loading scenery, and other expenses (preview periods are now longer then ever because shows have become so technical that just working out the kinks in the computer system can take forever). But trying to fix the problems while the show was previewing in New York meant that it was being worked on right there in Manhattan where any number of looky-loos could come and see what was going on. There was no social media in 1981. No Facebook, no Twitter, no message boards. But gossip is nothing new and it always knew how to travel. There was Page Six of The New York Post, Liz Smith and other cogs in the noise machine that started to spread bad word of mouth up and down Manhattan. Even back then haters be hate, hate, hating.
Finally, the show had to open. Everyone agreed that the actual opening night was euphoric. Opening nights usually are. The theater is full of family, friends, colleagues and well wishers of all kinds. The next day though, the jury would hand down their verdict.
Alas, the show was almost universally panned. Frank Rich, who now writes political commentary for New York magazine was just beginning his thirteen-year tenure as the chief drama critic for the New York Times. He was every bit in awe of Sondheim and Prince as the kids in the show. While a journalism student at Harvard he wrote a rave review of Follies in the Harvard Crimson. In years to come he would continue to be one of Stephen Sondheim’s biggest champions, sometimes to the point of exasperation among readers. Yet here it was, his first chance to review as Sondheim show for the Times. He had to be honest. A critic who isn’t forthright in his or her opinions is worthless. He gave the show a negative review. “It was a painful piece to write quite honestly,” reflects Rich in the documentary.
Merrily ran for only sixteen performances. The day after it closed the young cast assembled in a recording studio to preserve the show on vinyl. The record would allow the show to, well, roll along, and quite merrily at that. Almost immediately after the show closed colleges began to request the chance to put the show on. In 1985 the show got its first major re-staging at the La Jolla Playhouse just outside of San Diego. With a revised script, some new songs, new sets and costumes and, most importantly, a cast of actors closer in age to their roles, it was clear that the show wasn’t as stillborn as so many Broadway wags thought. Since then the show has been revived, constantly. Just recently Playbill reported that the show had just received its five thousandth performance!
While Sondheim and Prince remained close friends, their careers went in separate directions. Sondheim continued to write strikingly original shows such as Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins and Passion. He’s won more Tony Awards then any other songwriter in musical theater history, plus a Grammy, Oscar and Pulitzer Prize. In 2010 he even had a theater named for him. Currently he and playwright David Ives are working on a musical based on two different Luis Bunuel movies. Lord knows I’m excited to see it.
Shortly before Merrily opened Hal Prince had enjoyed a great success with Evita. He later went on to direct The Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Spider Woman and a hugely successful revival of Show Boat in 1994. Just recently a retrospective of his long career called The Prince of Broadway had it’s U.S. premiere.
And what about the kids in the cast…..?
Well, needless to say they aren’t kids anymore. Among those who participated in the documentary are Anne Morrison, who played the female lead role of Mary Flynn. She has performed in regional theaters all over the country, appearing in such shows as The Fantasticks, Forbidden Broadway, Guys and Dolls, Little Shop of Horrors, many others. She has settled in Sarasota, Florida where she has a rewarding career teaching acting to the mentally challenged. Abigail Pogrebin continued to audition for roles but then got a job working at CBS news. She went on to produce segments for Bill Moyers, Charlie Rose, Ed Bradley and Mike Wallace. She then switched to print journalism and had a best seller with her book Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish that is being adapted into an Off-Broadway musical.
Some of the cast members did go on to have careers on Broadway. Jim Walton, the man who ultimately played the lead in Merrily never achieved stardom but he has been a working actor ever since. He’s appeared on Broadway in 42nd Street, Crazy for You and revivals of The Music Man and Sweeny Todd. He still lives in the same Hell’s Kitchen apartment that he moved into back in 1979 when he worked as the buildings super. The intercom still has the nametags that he made with a label maker low those many years ago. Tonya Pinkins has gone on to play many starring roles on Broadway. In 1991 she won a Tony Award for the musical Jelly’s Last Jam and in 2004 gave an electrifying performance in the Tony Kushner/Janine Tessori musical Caroline or Change. She’s also appeared in numerous TV shows including All My Children, 24, Gotham and (natch) Law & Order.
One actor who most certainly did go on to achieve stardom was Jason Alexander. Yes, that Jason Alexander, aka: George Costanza, aka Art Vandele, aka Master of His Own Domain. After Merrily he went on to appear on stage with Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli in The Rink, received his first major recognition in Neil Simon’s play Broadway Bound and won a Tony Award for Jerome Robbins Broadway. Then came a little show about nothing that gave him the financial security that most actors can only dream about. One actor who didn’t participate in the documentary is Giancarlo Esposito, who went on to appear in movies like Do the Right Thing and The Usual Suspects. Recently he’s made his mark on TV history playing drug lord Gustavo Fring on the shows Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. I guess he was too busy to participate in the doc though I find it odd that they don’t mention him even though he can clearly be seen in the documentary footage.
It’s quite amazing that so much footage could be unearthed from a show that just barely made it out of the starting gate. It’s strange that the calculations of two Broadway masters could be so off, yet it also says something about how incredible theater is because instead of having to be stuck with an unsuccessful work of art you can start afresh and maybe get it right. And finally it says quite a bit that a project that only lasted for a few months could have such a profound, lasting, heartbreaking yet enriching impact on the lives of a bunch of star struck kids who, despite such a bitter disappointment managed to avoid turning out like the characters that they played.
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened is streaming on Netflix.