There’s nothing quite like crying during a movie. It’s cathartic, usually embarrassing and the best part is that after it’s over, you wipe your eyes in the sheltered darkness of the theater and promptly pretend it never happened. There are some signposts marking which movies will make you cry — if there’s a dog, if it’s about some sort of tragic event, if it’s nostalgic for your childhood, or if it’s a beautiful celebration of the power of humanity coming together. The last one might just be a personal preference (I dare you to name someone who didn’t cry at the end of “The Martian” though), but the fact is you never really know when it’ll happen, which is part of what makes movie-crying so special.
You don’t have to know anything about musical theater or Stephen Sondheim to get something out of “The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” a documentary chronicling the making and failure of the Sondheim musical “Merrily We Roll Along.” In fact, you can know next to nothing about musical theater and still find yourself stupidly wondering where all this water on your face is coming from.
“The Best Worst Thing” was made by Lonny Price, one of the original cast members in the musical, and combines footage from the original rehearsal process in the early 1980s and present-day interviews with the cast and creators, including Sondheim himself. The musical itself was about the relentless passage of time and the erosion of the idealistic dreams of people in their youth. Ironically (or maybe not ironically at all), “Merrily We Rolled Along” was not a successful show; it closed after only 16 shows, making it a painfully fitting subject for this particular documentary.
Each of the original cast members remembers their time working on the show as some of the best days of their lives — getting to work with the legendary Stephen Sondheim on a Broadway stage. They all spent their childhoods wearing their record players thin with Sondheim’s official cast recordings, and now they had all received their big breaks as actors with their hero. To watch the documentary footage of the rehearsals in the 1980s is to see a bunch of kids (the cast’s ages ranged from 16 to 25 years old) experience the greatest joy they might ever know.
They staked all of their hopes and dreams on this show, believing it to be the culminating moment of their lives. In a video from 1981, a 23-year-old Lonny Price said, “If I get hit by a bus the day after opening night, I don’t think I’ll care, because at least I got to do this,” flashing the biggest, most earnest smile you’ve ever seen. Price was not the only one who felt this way. The contrast between such footage and present-day interviews of the same cast members, now much older, wiser and almost entirely sadder is jarring, to say the least.
The intended audience of this documentary is most certainly aspiring actors, theater students and of course Sondheim fans young and old. And yet, at its core, “The Best Worst Thing” is a story about a bunch of young people thinking they’ll never be any older and that their hearts will never break, and a bunch of adults who know better, but still think it’s worth hoping. There isn’t anyone in the world who isn’t one or the other. So, of course, there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater.