Was That Broadway Musical REALLY Awful?

Was That Broadway Musical REALLY Awful?

Have you ever picked up a Broadway cast recording that you’d only vaguely heard of (or had never heard of), listened to it and said “This score is so good! Why isn’t this show being performed all the time?”. Just because a Broadway show has problems, it doesn’t always mean that the score is bad. In fact, many flop or troubled musicals have superior scores that will make you keep wondering “Was that musical AWFUL or WONDERFUL?”. Here are nine cast albums that will keep you wondering why that musical wasn’t a bigger hit.

Judy Kuhn & David Carroll in  Chess .

Judy Kuhn & David Carroll in Chess.

In all fairness, Chess was a hit when it opened in London, even producing a chart-climbing tune on “One Night in Bangkok”, but when it crossed the Atlantic to the Great White Way it quickly shuttered thanks to a critical checkmate.  Many found the Cold War-set story of a chess match between a Soviet and American to be convoluted and the flawed characters hard to like. The score, however, by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (of ABBA fame) and Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita) crackles with energy, melody, and emotion. Among the many terrific numbers to come out of the show, “Nobody’s Side”, “Someone Else’s Story”, “I Know Him So Well”, “Anthem”, “No Contest” and “Pity the Child” are standouts on the Broadway cast recording.   

Patti LuPone in a live performance of "Meadowlark" from the original pre-Broadway production.

The Baker's Wife
Stephen Schwartz’s score for the musical The Baker’s Wife is so beloved amongst flop collectors (and anyone who hears it) that it is hard to believe that the show closed before it could even open on Broadway. The song “Meadowlark” alone is so beloved amongst recording artists and cabaret performers that you would think the show was an enormous hit. Unfortunately, Joseph Stein’s book adaptation of the French film on which The Baker’s Wife is based has a hard time sustaining the premise for two full acts. If anything, The Baker’s Wife would have been a better musical if it had been a one-act. The story of a provincial baker who takes a young wife, loves her with all of his heart, only to have her cheat on him with a younger man, really suffers from no interesting subplots or supporting characters. The songs, however, are lovely including “Chanson”, “Gifts of Love” and “Where is the Warmth?”. 

The Grass Harp
Have you ever heard of the songs “Yellow Drum”, “Chain of Love” or “The Babylove Miracle Show”? If you haven’t, this is something you should indeed rectify as soon as possible and listen to The Grass Harp. In fact, the entire Kenward Elmslie (lyrics) and Claibe Richardson (music) score is going to surprise and delight you with its tuneful exuberance and its poetic lyricism.  The musical is based on a popular Truman Capote story of the same name about a boy who goes to live with his two maiden aunts when his parents die. Elmslie was responsible for the adaptation of the novella into the musical’s book. He was surprisingly faithful to the intimate piece, a factor that may have led to its failure since he didn’t really open up the story to fill a Broadway stage. Nevertheless, the score soars and then cradles your heart, touching emotions that you forgot that you had. Not bad for a flop musical.

John Kander, Liza Minnelli, Fred Ebb and Chita Rivera in rehearsal for  The Rink

John Kander, Liza Minnelli, Fred Ebb and Chita Rivera in rehearsal for The Rink

The Rink
A Kander and Ebb score is always something to look forward to, even if the script that goes with it is a challenge. The Rink happens to be an example of this duo devising a superior score, one of deep emotional gravitas and haunting melody, but that is often forgotten because the musical production failed to ignite. Writing for stars Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, the team concocted a battery of wonderful character songs including “Colored Lights”, “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer”, “The Apple Doesn’t Fall” and “All the Children in a Row”. Playwright Terrence McNally took over the already troubled book writing duties from Albert Innaurato, trying to solve the problems of how to resolve this intimate tale of forgiveness between an estranged mother and daughter. The results were mixed, and The Rink had a short run on Broadway.

Robert Preston & Bernadette Peters in  Mack & Mabel

Robert Preston & Bernadette Peters in Mack & Mabel

Mack & Mabel
First of all: Jerry Herman has never written a bad showtune. There are, however, musicals for which he wrote some amazing pieces of music, songs that got lost for the fact that their musicals failed to run. Mack & Mabel is a fine example of a Herman score that is bursting with would-be hits that have had to settle for being discovered by flop musical enthusiasts who say “Omigod, this is terrific, why didn’t this show run?”. Those of us who have happened upon this memorable score know of the enchanting “Look What Happened to Mabel”, the heartbreaking “I Won’t Send Roses”, the rousing “When Mabel Comes Into the Room”, and the viscerally agonizing “Time Heals Everything.” Second of all: Michael Stewart’s book for Mack & Mabel is not that bad, in fact, many moments of it are compelling, tender, witty, and honest. The problem is, audiences had trouble warming up to the romance of the central characters, him a driven film producer with commitment issues, her a silent film star with a drug and alcohol problem whose life ended prematurely.

Admittedly, this show ran a while, but it should have been a much bigger hit than it ultimately was. Alan Jay Lerner (lyrics) and Frederick Loewe’s score for the 1960 musical Camelot was legendary before the show even opened because the cast recording was made before it was released on Broadway. Audiences came into the theatre prepared to love the musical, predominantly because the album had been so wonderful. The title song was particularly memorable and catchy, but Julie Andrews’s performance of “Take Me to the Fair”, a song that never even made it to the production’s final cut but was included on the cast album, was delightfully clever. The romantic songs “If Ever I Would Leave You” and “I Loved You Once in Silence” were achingly potent. It is a shame that the musical’s book was interminably long and convoluted, stretching Camelot into a theatre-going marathon that left audiences exhausted. What also didn’t work was that the musical started out with several light-hearted character songs, setting audiences up for a comedy and fantasy, but then devolving into a depressing darkness that turned toward tragedy.

Madeline Kahn sings "Glitter and Be Gay" from Candide.

Many people mention Leonard Bernstein’s (music) and John Richard Wilbur’s (lyrics-with others contributing) score for Candide when the musical theatre discussion turns to the greatest scores of all time. Interestingly, Candide was a flop in its initial run, though a successful revival in the 1970s resurrected the show thanks to a brilliantly staged Harold Prince production. Lillian Hellman’s original book, based on the novella by Voltaire, has mostly been forgotten because the revival employed a more successful book written by Hugh Wheler. Regardless, Candide has never really caught on with the masses, but remains the beloved property of the opera the world and Broadway musical aficionados. Who can blame them? The lush orchestrations and soaring melodies of “Glitter and Be Gay” and “Make Our Garden Grow” have a majesty unlike any other musical theatre score.

Angela Lansbury in  Anyone Can Whistle

Angela Lansbury in Anyone Can Whistle

Anyone Can Whistle
Even the great infallible Stephen Sondheim had a few flops along the way. His biggest was the musical Anyone Can Whistle, a delightfully wacky satirical piece about politics, power, and mental health that was so far ahead of its time that audiences in 1964 were simply baffled (or maybe offended) by its clever audacity. It doesn’t change the fact that Stephen Sondheim wrote the score, so of course there are many wonderful (if cynical) songs such as “Me and My Town”, “The Miracle Song”, “Everybody Say’s Don’t”, “A Parade in Town” and the title song making every case for someone to come along and think they fix the musical’s problems. Some inventive book writer might be up to streamlining Arthur Laurents book, but the musical accuses the masses of so many unpalatable things (like being mad) that it might be impossible to ever get an audience onboard for the show.  

Let me begin this entry by saying how excited I am that the Goodspeed Opera House is reviving Rags this fall. It has such a worthy score, even if the book is overly complicated. Charles Strouse wrote some of his most evocative and atmospheric melodies and Stephen Schwartz some of his most complex lyrics for this score. The musical, with a book by Joseph Stein, tells a story of an immigrant woman and her son who come to New York City at the turn-of-the-century. So many wonderful songs: the anthem “Children of the Wind”, the sultry “Blame in on the Summer Night”, the spritely “Brand New World”, and, particularly, the emotionally–charged title song. The musical’s future potential is often dwarfed by the similar (and far more successful) Ragtime, but if it’s book can be sorted-out, the score makes Rags a tantalizing property for revival.

Are there any scores you’d like to add to the discussion? What scores surprised you when stumbled upon them? Please share the show and your reasons in the “Comments” section! 

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