Ten Flop Musicals that Deserve a Second Chance on Broadway
It's always sad when a musical flops, especially when you consider all the time, talent, heart and cash that are poured into bringing a musical to Broadway. Every once and a while a musical that failed to ignite at the box office the first time around is given a second chance to show off its merits. Consider that the classic Candide was not a hit the first time around in 1956 but found great acclaim in a 1973 revival and the case is made that a revival of a failed property can be merited. Some other musicals have had this opportunity: a revival of Side Show, a 1997 flop that hoped to make a new case for itself with a 2014 revival, met with mediocre ticket sales and reviews. Some musicals are destined to be loved in concept only, never quite yielding in popularity what their proponents see as the hidden or untapped potential of its ingredients. This is okay. Not every revival of a once successful musical is a hit, so it stands to reason that not every first go around with a piece is going to be a success. Many components besides book, music and lyrics come together to make a production, so altering those ingredients (director, budget, performers, even the written material itself) can possibly add up to a new production that works.
Here are ten musicals that I believe, with the right ingredients and a little hope, could add up to a hit if they were given a second chance.
Henry, Sweet Henry
Bob Merrill was a terrific lyricist, especially when working with composer Jule Styne on projects like Funny Girl and Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. When Merrill wrote his own music, he had more varied results. He had his successes such as New Girl in Town and Carnival! And he had his unfortunate flops like the 1967 Henry, Sweet, Henry. The interesting thing is, there is much to recommend in this musical based on the novel The World of Henry Orient by Nora Johnson. The show's failure may have had more to do with the miscasting of the male lead than any actual fault with the script or score. The story follows two teenagers who, for a lark, obsessively stalk an aging composer who is, himself, trying to woo a woman and is hindered in his efforts by his new entourage. The musical features a fascinating supporting character named Kafritz, a psychotic teenager who is not above blackmail and who sings the musical's most-famous number "Nobody Steps on Kafritz." Many critics actually admired this show the first time around, but a lambasting from the powerful Clive Barnes of The New York Times was enough to sink it. Of all Merrill’s flops, this one deserved to be a hit and perhaps could be.
Mack & Mabel
This Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) and Michael Stewart (book) musical about the world of silent film and the transition to "the talkies" is a true story. What is more, it features what is arguably Jerry Herman's finest, most emotionally textures score with standouts like "Look What Happened to Mabel", "I Won't Send Roses" and "Time Heals Everything." In its original run, the heartbreaking and tragic romance between filmmaker Mack Sennett and silent film star Mabel Normand (and her downward spiral) was a hard pill to swallow for audiences in 1974. Nowadays, patrons are more accustomed to this type of story and would most certainly embrace Mack & Mabel with open arms.
70, Girls, 70
Composers Kander and Ebb have had their ups and downs on musical theatre. Their flops almost always have gone down with sparkling scores that keep their memories afloat. One of these flops of esteem includes 70, Girls, 70, a musical about a group of retirees who engage in illegal heists to fund the purchase of of their retirement hotel which is being sold to developers. The plot is silly, but the score is not. Much of it makes astute observations about aging, the generation gap, and family. Adapted from the play Breath of Spring by Peter Coke, the musical opened on Broadway in 1971 in the same season as the musical Follies. Some historians have suggested that Broadway only had room for one musical that featured a cast of predominantly older performers. The two musicals are very different, but considering what audiences might look for in a musical, this may have been a contributing factor. Nevertheless, there is so much that is memorable about 70, Girls, 70 that it's bound to be rediscovered someday and given some love with a revival.
My Favorite Year
The 1982 film My Favorite Year was equal parts comedy and nostalgia. Set in the 1950s, the story follows Benjy Stone a junior writer on television's King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade, a Sid Caesar-like sketch comedy show. When Benjy's favorite film star Alan Swann is a guest on the show, the young idealist learns a big lesson about meeting ones heroes. Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) composed a tantalizing score that captured the spirit and period of the film. Songs like “Twenty Million People” and “Larger than Life” explode with character development and invigorating musicality. Joseph Dougherty's book is witty but uneven, bearing the largest brunt of the criticism. Still, the piece exudes a palpable energy that radiates hope that My Favorite Year might someday be revived successfully.
Another Jerry Herman musical that deserves a second chance to tread the Broadway boards is Dear World, adapted from the Jean Giraudoux satirical play The Madwoman of Chaillot. Gentler and more reflective than his other big leading lady musicals such as Hello, Dolly! and Mame, Dear World just didn't have the bells and whistles that audiences expected from a Herman musical. This was no shortcoming, but rather an indication that Herman was a far more eclectic composer than he was initially given credit for being. A revival with the right personality in the lead and a director with a soft and subtle touch at the helm could make a new case for this charming bijou.
The Goodbye Girl
This stage adaptation of the Neil Simon screenplay for The Goodbye Girl (based on the 1977 hit film of the same name) had a lot going for it when it opened in 1993. One horribly corny song aside, the Marvin Hamlisch (music) and David Zippel (lyrics) score is vibrant “A Beat Behind”, emotionally charged “I Think I Can Play This Part” and witty “Elliott Garfield Grant”. The story, about two stubborn and diametrically opposed performers who are forced to live together out of necessity and who subsequently fall in love, is both compelling and romantic. The original production was overblown and bigger than this intimate tale needed. A revival in a smaller theatre would be an ideal way to give the show a new breath of life, allowing audiences to hone in on the central characters and their domestic challenges in tight quarters.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer felt like it had the makings of a terrific family musical, much in the vein of its obvious comparison and forefather Big River. Mark Twain's novel Tom Sawyer was given life onstage in 2001, but it quickly closed. It's a shame. The evergreen story of an incorrigible youth finding adventures with his friends along the Mississippi River in the 1840s always delights. The score, by country music composer Don Schlitz, was a perfect meld of folksy melodies, boisterous fun and efficient, character revealing storytelling. Scaled down versions of this musical have done well regionally and in community theatres. Perhaps Tom, Huck and Becky Thatcher need a new chance to prove their worth on Broadway?
Merrily We Roll Along
Nowadays, a Stephen Sondheim musical revival is always an event no matter which property is being dusted off and produced. One of his least successful musicals, Merrily We Roll Along, has emerged over time to be one of his most beloved. Subsequent off-Broadway and regional productions of the show have sought to solve the problems of the original production and have mostly succeeded (to varying degrees). The story, told in backward order, follows three jaded and life-weary friends who, through the stripping away of time, are revealed to be young and idealistic at heart, united in their devotion to one another. Surely Broadway can find room for a revival and let us hear such songs as "Not a Day Goes By", "Now You Know" and "Good Thing Going" again in context.
Aspects of Love
There was a time when back on the 1980s when an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was an exciting prospect, almost guaranteed to succeed. He had a string of hits that made him the envy of all (Evita, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera). All of that fell apart in 1990 with Aspects of Love a musical that was unlike the spectacles for which Webber was associated. Aspects of Love is based on David Garnett's novella, a plot-heavy story with a spider web of intricacies about the various types of love we encounter and how it shapes the people that we are. Spanning almost two-decades, the musical weaves these themes by following a handful of characters whose lives become entangled with time and opportunity. Aspects of Love features one of Webber's most lush and emotionally complex scores, and certainly its most varied since Evita. The original production was too big. In the end, it's a chamber piece that requires up close scrutiny of the story and characters to pack its punch. With some paring down it could work a second time around.
I still believe there is something inside the Henry Krieger (music) and Bill Russell (book and lyrics) musical Side Show that is poised to someday emerge to make it a hit. The true story of conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, circus side show freaks who live a tormented existence as they try to find love and a sense of normalcy despite their challenges, offers such a fresh point of view and unique story that it demands to be told, again and again, until it finally moves a larger audience. The musical’s best number "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" is both emotionally raw and poignantly earnest that it has become an anthem of sorts for anyone who has felt taken for granted or who just wants to be accepted, flaws and all, for who they are. There are wonderful moments like this sewn throughout the fabric of this show and someday audiences will embrace this show for exactly what it is.
What flops do you think might have a chance a second time around?