Flop Idol: Musicals That Don't Make ItDate: 15 August 2005
As Behind the Iron Mask opens to disastrous reviews - & immediately announces its closure - Mark Shenton looks at the cult phenomenon of flop musicals & recounts his own favourites from the hall of shame.
No one sets out to knowingly produce bad shows - except perhaps the hapless Bialystock and Bloom of Mel Brooks' The Producers, who hatch a plan (that goes splendidly awry) to over-capitalise a production of the worst musical they can find (the tasteless farrago Springtime for Hitler) and trouser the difference between the money they’ve raised and what they've actually spent when it inevitably flops.
In the real world, however, bad musicals aren't so much a Springtime for Hitler as a swansong to someone's dreams that turn into nightmares, for their casts, producers and especially, audiences who might end up throwing good money after bad and buying a ticket to see them. Having said that, there's a special breed of theatregoers that actually likes to collect such bad musical memories, like rubber-neckers at the scene of a car crash. I'm afraid I'm one of them, and, judging by the gleeful recollections in a recent topic on the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum, I’m not alone.
Here today, gone tomorrow
It's one of my keenest regrets in life that, owing to a mistimed trip, I managed to miss last year's Oscar Wilde by former Radio 1 DJ Mike Read. This "here today, gone tomorrow" entry did that extremely rare thing over here and closed on its first night, unable to survive reviews like that in the Evening Standard which said, "In 1895, Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years' hard labour. A more cruel and unusual punishment has been devised by Read - a musical of exquisite awfulness." The Daily Telegraph was no more encouraging: "This sorry bio-musical passes golden genius through the filter of presumptuous mediocrity and produces over two hours of leaden dross." And on a night when the microphones apparently misbehaved badly, the Guardian was drawn to comment: "As this grim evening continues, you begin to wonder whether the sound system is being affected by the hefty rumbling of Oscar Wilde turning in his grave."
Even when a show itself provides negligible pleasure, the resulting reviews can be so entertaining it’s almost worth the effort. But flop musicals also provide a rich memory bank of infinitely treasurable moments. No one who ever saw it - and I saw it twice, just to confirm how blissfully bad it was - will forget The Fields of Ambrosia. This musical about a travelling executioner in the southern states of America, who took his own electric chair with him wherever he went, ran for two and a half weeks at the Aldwych Theatre in January 1996 before being summarily executed itself. It wasn't just the rhymes of the order of the title song ("In the Fields of Ambrosia/everyone knows ya"), but also scenes like the executioner's assistant who, gang-raped on one prison visit, turns up in the next scene to declare, "If it ain't one thing, it's another", that made this a collector's item.
Epitaph to doom
Nor will I ever forget 2003’s Money to Burn. In it, Peter Blake (who, poor man, went on to star in Oscar Wilde) was tied to a chair, his modesty protected only by a pair of ladies’ underwear, while singing: "Wank me, spank me/ gag me with a hankie/ ooh, that's what I like". But it was the musical’s own title, rather than such cerebral lyrics, that provided its own epitaph as its producers watched their investment go up in smoke in rather unique circumstances at The Venue in Leicester Square: the show closed between the matinee and evening performances on the Saturday of its first week.
Some shows are seemingly doomed before they even begin. A 1994 musical based on the bombing of Nagasaki, Out of the Blue, was never a promising idea - and quickly proved so when it closed after 16 performances and was promptly re-dubbed by some wags, "A Flash in Japan". Some theatres, too, seem doomed, attracting more than their share of flops. The scene of Out of the Blue’s devastation was the Shaftesbury, which in recent years also hosted two successive French-inspired bio-musicals based on the lives of Lautrec and Napoleon (both went belly-up in 2000), followed by the likes of Peggy Sue Got Married, 125th Street and Batboy (none of which managed much longer). A hit at the Shaftesbury seems to be an accident - or an accident waiting to happen. When a hit production of Hair played here in the late Sixties, the roof fell in!
Even shows like Rent, Tommy or Thoroughly Modern Millie, which all arrived at the Shaftesbury as Tony Award-winning Broadway hits, retreated from there as money losers. There’s no guarantee, of course, that a show that’s been proven to work on Broadway or in Europe will ever replicate that success in the West End. Most famously, perhaps, the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd flopped badly when it transferred from Broadway to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1980 – though London has since taken the show much more closely to its heart. The Euro-hit versions of Romeo and Juliet - The Musical and Notre Dame de Paris both failed to take the town when they transferred to the Piccadilly and Dominion, respectively. (On the other hand, it was London that propelled another show first seen in a different production in Paris, Les Miserables, to worldwide success – except, ironically, in the French capital when it was taken back there!)
Improbable hits… & inevitable flops
If a series of flops can generate a stigma, it’s also true that unlucky theatres can be turned around by a hit, and that sometimes those hits can be utterly improbable. Who would have guessed that a musical based on cat poems by a dead poet (TS Eliot) and directed by the then artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and musical novice (Trevor Nunn) and housed at the West End's biggest white elephant (the New London) could turn into a megahit that ran for 21 years? I’m talking, of course, about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats.
But lots of musicals are simply dogs. When another RSC artistic director, Terry Hands, sought to turn Stephen King's novel about a menstruating and mentally unhinged teenager, Carrie, into a big-time musical, he was covered in blood. Barbara Cook, who played Carrie’s mother during the Stratford-upon-Avon tryout, wisely jumped ship before the show transferred to Broadway and ran for just five performances at the Virginia Theatre in 1988. An invaluable record of the genre, written by critic Ken Mandelbaum, even takes its title from that catastrophe: Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Flops. Though I managed to miss Oscar Wilde, it’s one of my proudest personal boasts that I managed to see Carrie both in Stratford and on Broadway, where Betty Buckley had taken over.
While Carrie had the imprimatur of the RSC (to the company’s eternal embarrassment no doubt), flop shows are usually the sins of inexperience. Bernadette (the Lourdes musical that played at the Dominion for a couple of weeks in 1990) was written by two Welsh schoolteachers and billed as “the people's musical” owing to the fact that investment was sought in small chunks from the general public, who promptly saw their money vanish on the first night. Even more bizarrely, a musical biography about the Renaissance artist Leonardo (that came and went from the Strand in a month in 1993) was financed by a small island whose economy was entirely driven by the proceeds of bird droppings - an apt metaphor for the show itself.
Musicals can often be vanity - or more likely, insanity - projects. Last autumn’s notorious flop, the salsa-inspired Murderous Instincts (which ran briefly at the Savoy) had the leading lady herself, Nichola McAuliffe, trashing it in advance in the press. Whetting everyone’s appetite for the unfolding debacle, she reported that rehearsals were like “a motorway pile-up” and that the producer, Manny Fox, was “as mad as a box of frogs”.
If we all knew what made a hit, we'd all be multi-millionaires like Cameron Mackintosh – and even he's not immune to the killer flop. With 1993’s Moby Dick, an adaptation of Melville's novel supposedly enacted by a bunch of enthusiastic schoolgirls, even Mackintosh couldn't sustain a run of more than three months at the Piccadilly Theatre.
Sometimes you need to know how to quit while you're ahead. Before Mackintosh arrived on the scene, the biggest producer of musicals in London was Harold Fielding, but he could never stop chasing one more hit. In 1988, a musical biography of Ziegfeld flopped not once but twice for him at the London Palladium. After receiving hostile notices with original star Len Cariou in the title role, Fielding sent the show into surgery and re-opened it, this time with Topol starring, using a 'helpful' new device that enabled him to play both narrator and the title role. "When the flower is in my lapel, I'm Ziegfeld, and when it's not, I'm not", he explained to the audience.
Fielding's final West End fling was even more ignominious. When he transferred Petula Clark's self-penned musical Someone Like You (in which she also starred) from a regional tour to the Strand in 1990, it ran for just three months, before expiring suddenly, mid-week, on a Thursday evening when funds finally ran out and the actors couldn't be paid. (The Strand also suffered another odd premature closure when a panned 1986 revival of Cabaret closed on a Monday night after a week of playing without a band, the musicians having already walked out).
One of the greatest of all Broadway impresarios, David Merrick also watched his own star dwindle and fade. After his final show, a 1990 revival of a 1928 Gershwin musical called Oh, Kay!, ran for less than two months at New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, he put it on 'hiatus' before transferring it three months later across W46th Street to the Lunt-Fontanne, where it closed in previews without formally opening.
Hope springs eternal
A preview exit may, sometimes, be the healthiest option. Why suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous bad reviews? Hope, though, sometimes springs eternal. Last week, the producers of Behind the Iron Mask in the West End were being urged to abandon their first night; but they went ahead anyway. The show – written by an aerospace engineer turned composer who reportedly sunk £500,000 of his own money into it - has now joined the ranks of some of the West End's most famous flops (See News, 4 Aug 2005). As Paul Taylor wrote in his review in the Independent: “There have been musicals that have closed after a couple of performances. But Behind the Iron Mask looked at times as though it was going to close before the interval on press night. There were weird, vacant moments when it seemed to run completely out of steam, as though, like its audience, it was losing the will to live.”
Musicals can be a passport to riches - "you can't make a living in the theatre," someone once said, "but you can make a killing" - but more often, they're a passport to penury. As someone else succinctly put it, and let it be a warning to any aspiring producer, "the only way to become a millionaire producer is to begin as a billionaire producer."