Broadway Blip: Blood Brothers
It is the very rare occasion that a musical has a book, music AND lyrics all by the same person. Meredith Willson did it all three for The Music Man, but even he had help from Franklin Lacey on the book. No, it takes a very special talent to navigate all three of these components. That’s why Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers has always been a fascinating musical for me. It is all of one voice, and the epic tale of the Johnstone twins is a thrilling soap opera steeped in superstition, pop music, tragedy and humor.
Blood Brothers opened on Broadway in 1993, where it enjoyed a solid run of 840 performances. It’s road to Broadway, however, was a long one that started in Russell’s homeland of Great Britain where the show was a modest success in its original run (1983), toured successfully, and then became a long-running success with its 1988 revival that ran until 2012. In fact, Blood Brother’s is one of London’s West End’s longest-running musicals (it currently holds the #3 spot behind Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera.
Blood Brothers tells the story of Mrs. Johnstone, a hard-on-her-luck, single mother who has too many children to make ends meet. When she learns she is pregnant with twins, she has to give one of them up. She makes an arrangement with the infertile woman for whom she keeps house, Mrs. Lyons, that she will raise the baby as her own so that Mrs. Johnstone can see him each day. Mrs. Johnstone gives birth to twin boys and reluctantly turns one of the two over to Mrs. Lyons. Mr. Lyons is away on an extended business trip and comes home to find out that his wife has a new baby named Edward. Heartbroken, Mrs. Johnstone does her best to raise the other child that she has named Michael along with his myriad siblings, but can’t help get involved too closely with Eddie. Mrs. Lyons gets paranoid and fires Mrs. Johnstone, reminding her of an old superstition that, if twins are parted and they learn that they are siblings, both will die. Mrs. Johnstone has no choice to walk away and try to forget about Eddie. Years pass, and the twin boys meet in the park and become fast friends. They grow up playing together, never knowing they are actually brothers. As they become men, Eddie’s life of privilege gives him a leg up in society while Mikey struggles and loses his job thanks to mass unemployment. The boys are finally torn apart when they find themselves both in love with the same girl, Mikey shooting Eddie and the cops shooting Mikey, immediately after Mrs. Johnstone tells them they are brothers.
Why didn’t Blood Brothers find the same success in the United States? I can only offer conjecture here, but I saw the American production back in 1993 and it was a powerful, well-acted production with many of the leads from the London revival. It opened in a season where the much-flashier The Who’s Tommy and the socially important Kiss of the Spider Woman were both dazzling audiences. Blood Brothers was small and intimate, most likely getting lost in the wake of these other musicals. Also, Blood Brothersis very British in its themes and its flavor. Though America has its Anglophiles (I am certainly one), the average American theatergoing audience may have struggled to connect with the characters and their stories.