Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “success.”
What does it mean? Does it even exist….. Who defines it? What happens if you achieve it?
Then I stumbled across the documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened on Netflix and some of these questions were answered.
The film, directed by Lonny Price, is about the creation, production and aftermath of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Any musical theatre nerd knows that, although the show is currently produced all over the world to much acclaim, it’s initial debut was not met with such enthusiasm. The documentary chronicles the show from it’s inception between composer/lyricist Sondheim and famed director Hal Prince, to its untimely demise after just sixteen Broadway performances.
By all “standards” of success, the show was a complete and utter failure. Hundreds of audience members were leaving the theater before intermission, lead actors were being fired on the spot, and tensions were rising between acclaimed duo Sondehim and Prince. There were many factors that led to Merrily’s closing, but none of them had to do with the actual merit of the material.
As Sondheim, Prince and the original cast members explain in their interviews (thirty -plus years after opening night) the show was a failure because it was trying to do too many things at once. Between the first productions casting, directorial, and musical choices, audiences were left with more questions than answers. But the shows legacy grew far beyond closing night. It has been produced all across the world, and has won awards in many major cities. It’s achieved a sort of “cult classic” status amongst Sondheim nerds, and I can say personally that “Opening Doors” is one of my favorite musical theatre songs ever.
So was the show a success? Is the show a success? If you get a chance to watch the documentary you will hear the original cast members repeat time and time again that they knew they were sitting on a classic. Even if the critics and the press didn’t understand it back then, they believed in the material and they believed in the visions of Prince and Sondheim.
Maybe success-centric questions then should be based less on who and more on when……
…..or maybe I should just stop thinking so much.