Long before he became a torchbearer for Stephen Sondheim—directing an 80th birthday tribute, stagings of Sweeney Todd, and a televised concert of Company—Lonny Price was a fan. With moxie.
A true believer since his grandmother took him to see the original production of Company on his 11th birthday (“a ticket broker assured her it was good for kids”), he went on to write mash notes to the master (which the composer-lyricist answered), hang posters of Company and Follies in his bedroom, and, after graduating from a performing arts high school in New York, score a gophering job on Pacific Overtures, assisting Sondheim's longtime producing and directing partner, Harold Prince.
So imagine Price's sense of destiny at age 22 when Prince cast him in the key role of Charley Kringas, best friend and lyricist to composer and mogul Franklin Shepard, in Merrily We Roll Along. The backwards-told parable of youthful idealism hitting the skids of middle age, was sure to be the toast of the 1981-1982 season. Then, imagine what it felt like for him and the other 20 or so youngsters including Jim Walton, Jason Alexander and Tonya Pinkins, when it all came crashing down with bad reviews, closing after just 16 regular performances. “It was beyond devastating,” says Price of that legendary closure of a musical which, after decades of tweaks and countless stagings worldwide, is now considered a jewel. “Being in that show was everything I had ever wanted.”
Price explores that thrilling, wrenching experience in his documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, which opens in New York November 18 before a wider national release.
The impulse to make a movie came from an epiphany he had while singing “Old Friends” with Walton, who played Frank, in a 2002 Merrily reunion concert. “It occurred to me I was not singing as Charley to Frank but as Lonny to Jimmy, my old friend,” Price recalls. “Later I thought, ‘Wouldn't it be interesting to make a film about the people involved and use the score as the soundtrack?’”
Best Worst Thing—the title is a play on a Merrily lyric— catches up with castmates as they remember rehearsals when dialogue and blocking changed daily, creators added and dropped songs in previews, and when the lead actor was replaced late in the game. Price draws out of them the elation of being cast, the strains on Prince and Sondheim, and their personal aftermaths. “I hoped that telling their stories would reflect what Merrily was about,” he says, “the price you pay to hold on to your dreams and the price you pay to give them up.”
The film took Price nine years. “It was bad for a long time,” he says. “But it's like with a musical, you keep fixing little things and each fix has some energy to it that helps with the next thing.” A turning point came with the discovery of footage, shot for a TV documentary that never aired and presumed lost, that included audition clips and an interview with Price. Watching Price watch his younger self is heart-stopping.
Making the movie proved cathartic for him as well as his castmates, some of whom attended a screening at the New York Film Festival in October. “We have a film out there that says we did something that was beautiful no matter how it was received at the time,” says Price, “and that is healing.” In a Q&A following the movie, Sondheim choked up when he spoke of letting the kids down. Hal Prince carried the same burden. Price will never forget closing night of Merrily when the director came to his dressing room. “He said, ‘I'm sorry I didn't give you a hit.’ And, when he left, I started to cry because I felt so bad for him. Because to me it was all kind of a gift and glorious. I think Hal is now finally aware, from the film, what a gift he gave us. We wouldn't trade that experience for anything.”
And Price, who directed Audra McDonald in her Tony-winning turn in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill and Glenn Close in an acclaimed London reboot of Sunset Boulevard which comes to Broadway next year, learned lessons on Merrily which have served him well. “Watching Hal and Steve work when the show was floundering, their lack of emotion ... they rolled up their sleeves and cut this and re-did that.” It taught him that “it’s not some muse that whispers in your ear; you stay up all night until you get it right.”
Sondheim, for one, thinks Price got it right with the documentary. “A few weeks ago he sent me a note,” Price says. “He said, ‘As we say in West Side Story, you done good buddy boy.’”
Tim Allis has written for People, Billboard, Out, Men's Health and In Style where he was a senior editor for many years.