What You Need to Know About the Merrily Documentary | Playbill

Seth Rudetsky What You Need to Know About the Merrily Documentary This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Lonny Price gives Seth the inside scoop on his documentary about the fraught last collaboration of Sondheim and Prince, plus Anita Gilette on Seth Speaks.
Seth Rudetsky and Lonny Price
Seth Rudetsky and Lonny Price Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Hello from United Flight 110 to London! I’m heading across ye olde pond to start rehearsals for Disaster! I’m going to be keeping a diary because I plan on having lots of London West End adventures…or as they call it “stagey” adventures. See! Already I’m fitting in!

Airport! Seth Rudetsky

Our producer for the charity concert is Darren Murphy who works for MADtrust (which is the West End version of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS). He said that we should take it easy the first day and just have some production meetings and no rehearsal. Of course, I insisted upon having rehearsal, and now I’m completely anxious I won’t be able to sleep on this flight, and I’ll be completely exhausted. I land around 7 AM and we start at 11 AM London time which is 6 AM in the states. What was I thinking?

Anyhoo, I’m writing this while waiting to take off. And I do mean waiting. They just announced the flight was delayed 45 minutes. Well, all the more time to type! Here goes: Last week on Seth Speaks I had two stars from the original Merrily We Roll Along. There is a fabulous documentary about to open on November 18 called Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened that I saw an advanced screening of! (And yes, I just ended that sentence in a preposition.)

It’s all about the making of Merrily. If you don’t know, the show goes backwards in time; It starts with the characters at age 40 and then ends at their high school graduation. The concept was to have young people play the roles, so at the end, they’re the correct ages. Sadly, it wound up only playing on Broadway for around two weeks and ended the collaboration of Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim. Lonny Price (who played Charley Kringas in the show) made the documentary, and it’s so fascinating to find out that, as a young kid, he was obsessed with Prince and Sondheim and their string of hits: Company, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd and then, as a young man, he got to create a leading role in one of their shows!

Basically, everyone in the show was just like him: an obsessed theatre kid who had the mind-boggling good fortune to work with their idols. Literally the “best thing that ever could have happened.” And then on the first preview, these Sondheim/Prince-worshipping young actors saw people fleeing up the aisle during the show. They were literally performing to people’s backs (A.K.A. the “worst that ever could have happened”). Hence, the title. What’s so great about this film is that—at the time—ABC television was filming a piece on Merrily that never got made because the show closed. And all the filmed footage was lost. But, suddenly it was found and Lonny got his hands on all of it! You actually get to see the original auditions at Minskoff rehearsal studios, the very first reading of the show, the actual moment when Sondheim explains to Hal Prince that he needs more time to finish the score and that they should delay the show…it’s all there!

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On a sidenote, a great companion to the film is a book I’ve read (twice) called Showstopper by Abgail Pogrebin. It’s a Kindle Single specifically about Abby’s entire experience doing Merrily We Roll Along. At the end of the book, she talks about doing the Merrily reunion concert in 2002 and how she pushed herself vocally to keep up with everyone. She then writes that, after belting non-stop for the rehearsals and performance, she got a permanent rasp to her voice that had never been there before. I read the book, which had no audio commentary. Then I saw the documentary and when Abby spoke I was like “OMG! There’s the rasp!” The film has great interviews with original cast members Tonya Pinkins, Jim Walton, Annie Morrisson and so many more. And, one of the coolest things happens early in the film: Lonny had a party in his (parents’) apartment before the show went to Broadway. The cast asked him to invite Hal Prince and, under duress, he did. He expected Hal to politely decline, but not only did Hal say yes, but he invited Sondheim to join him as well! So, both Hal and Sondheim were at Lonny’s party and, at one point, Sondheim told Lonny that his birthday present was a song he wrote. A song he wrote for Lonny to sing on Broadway! Then Sondheim went to the piano and played it for Lonny and the whole cast. And…Lonny (secretly) taped the entire thing! You literally hear Sondheim talking to Lonny about the song and then Sondheim himself sings “Good Thing Going.” Such an amazing historical moment be able to witness! Here’s Lonny singing the song on the original cast album (which was recorded the day after the show closed.)

The documentary opens in New York City November 18 and Los Angeles November 25.

Also on Seth Speaks, I had Anita Gillette talking about her phenomenal career. Her first Broadway show, you ask? How about Gypsy! With Ethel Merman! She played one of the Hollywood Blondes (and understudied Dainty June) whose first entrance is in Act II. And that’s how she got her signature hair color. The other ladies decided she should dye her hair, so during their entire act break, they dyed it. She arrived that night at the theatre as a brunette and left as redhead! When she got the job, she didn’t know she was pregnant. When the powers-that-be found out, they were going to fire her. Instead, her job was saved by… Ethel Merman! Ethel told them, “So what she can’t do the cartwheel anymore. She can do the splits instead. Let her keep the job!” and she stayed in the show. Her next big gig was understudying Anna Maria Alberghetti in Carnival. A few weeks into rehearsal, Gower Champion, the director, called her over. This was their “conversation,” which was had as he was directing Kaye Ballard:

“Hi, Annette. Wait a second...Kaye! You enter from stage left. Anyway, Annette, we don’t think you look Italian enough for the part you understudy so—Kaye! Cross the entire stage! Anyway, Annette, we’re going to fire y—Kaye! All the way across!—we’re going to fire you. Thanks, Annette.”

Yes, she was fired, but she was asked to stay in the show until they found a replacement for her. She was, of course, devastated, and wanted to quit right away. Her husband (at the time) told her that the business was often going to be difficult, and she was either going to be able to take it or she should leave altogether. So, she decided to stay in the show. Well, they didn’t want to pay for an audition pianist, so they auditioned her replacements during her understudy rehearsal. Yes, she was in the theatre every week watching other women try out for her role. Finally, before they found anybody, she got another job! A featured role in The Gay Life, understudying Barbara Cook. She gave notice and right after, Anna Maria got sick. Annette had to go on during her final weekend with the show and she nailed it.

Suddenly, they wanted her to stay! Well, she already agreed to the next show and told Carnival she was leaving. Thus followed a series of late night phone calls from notoriously boundary-less bully David Merrick. She told us that he would call at 2 AM demanding that she tell Kermit Bloomgarten (the producer of The Gay Life) that she was staying with Carnival. Merrick told her that if she didn’t come back to his show he would kidnap her baby! Seriously! She told me she didn’t believe him and took the other job. Well, later on, Anna had to miss two weeks of the show and they asked Annette to come back and take over the role. Her agent negotiated that she got to her name above the title and David Merrick arranged for a photographer to come and take pictures of her on a ladder next to the new marquee that stated “Anita Gillette in Carnival.” Well, her agent wasn’t specific enough. Yes, she got her name above the title, but two weeks later Merrick sent her a bill for $200 from a New Jersey sign company. That’s right, she had to pay for the new marquee! You can read all about his chicanery in the great book The Abominable Showman. Fascinating. And very reminiscent of a certain bully running for office.

Merrick would have people do jobs for him and then, when it came time to pay, he would not pay them anything. Eventually, they would sue him for the money they were owed. Because he was rich and loved lawsuits, he would hold out until they settled…usually for half of what he promised to pay them. Back to Anita: Here she is back on the ’60s on the Bell Telephone Hour!

Back to bullies: I want to remind you to vote. Remember, Florida was won by around 537 votes! So, no matter what…VOTE!

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And, as a reminder, here’s a video of when all of us Broadway folk took one big bus down to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention. What a wonderful night! And I love how this video shows how we were kept onstage at the end because they crowd kept cheering “Hillary!” “Love Trumps Hate!”

Hang in there, America…and make a difference.

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