I can remember 1981—just cue up “Tainted Love” or “I Love a Man In Uniform” or Human League’s “Fascination” and I’m there. The music’s an infallible time machine.
For some people the music that brings back 1981 is Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Until last weekend I knew nothing about it, but now, not only did we see a superb revival at the Wallis, but also the new documentary about the original production.
Lonny Price’s “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened” is a good place to start if you’re somebody who’s suspicious of musicals in general and ignorant about Sondheim, like me. We see and hear the original cast of Merrily tell their funny and awful stories in the present, and then—through the magic of lost and miraculously rediscovered archival footage—see and hear them as they were in 1981—the auditions, the rehearsals, the rewrites, interviews with everybody involved.
I knew nothing and was moved. Price’s documentary is a meditation on what can happens to dreams over time. The irony is that Sondheim’s musical is a meditation on exactly the same thing. What happens when the greatest opportunity of a lifetime turns out to be a disaster?
The revival at the Wallis was first-rate: efficient without being slick, visually interesting without glitz, a 100% committed cast. The problems were the the problems inherent to the work, i.e. the book. The contrast between the triteness of the dialogue and the wit of the lyrics was jarring.
But the songs keep coming. I’m more attuned to the satirical ones than the ballads: “The Blob,” and “Opening Doors,” and “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” and “That’s not a tune you can hum to”. The slow number that still haunts is Gussie’s “Nothing wrong with wanting me, … darling. / Also nothing wrong with … … not.” The words couldn't be plainer. But the music, the tortuous pause before the final word of each line, makes it an existential threat. Somehow Frank, and everyone else, survived.