New York Musical Hits That Didn’t Fly in London
A Broadway hit doesn’t always necessarily translate to a universal hit. There have been many musicals that opened in New York City, but when they premiered in London’s West End, they failed to ignite with audiences. In some cases, it was the production that floundered and the show proved to be a hit at a later date. Here are some musicals that were hits in NYC, but initially failed in the West End.
Bells are Ringing
NYC (1956) 924 performances
London (1957) 292 performances
You don’t see many productions of Bells Are Ringing these days, but it was once a hit musical that received its share of productions in regional theatre, community theatre, and high schools. One place it didn’t catch on was in London where it ran a meager 292 performances. What about this charming musical comedy didn’t work there? The Jule Styne/Betty Comden/Adolph Green score certainly couldn’t have been the problem, but perhaps the story of an answering service operator who falls in love with one of her clients was just a little too corny?
La Cage aux Folles
NYC (1983) 1,761 performances
London (1986) 301 performances
Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein found great success with their stage musical adaptation of the hit film La Cage aux Folles. Winner for Best Musical at the 1984 Tony Awards (besting the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George), La Cage aux Follesran a healthy 1,761 performances. In London, however, its heart and humor must have been a real “drag.” The show only ran 301 performances.
NYC (1961) 719 performances
London (1963) 34 performances
So many people don’t know this haunting musical by Bob Merrill and Michael Stewart, based on the MGM film Lili,and they really should take some time with it. It is full of enchanting musical and wonderful surprises. It was a modest Broadway hit, running 719 performances, but somehow the story of a young girl who joins a traveling carnival didn’t appeal to British audiences. It ran for only 34 performances in London.
NYC (1960) 17, 162 performances
London (1961) 44 performances
The longest-running American musical of all time continues to be the Harvey Schmidt/Tom Jones Off-Broadway production of The Fantasticks. Opening in 1960, the musical ran for an astronomical 17,162 performances (albeit in a tiny theatre). In London, the gentle little allegory lasted for only 44 performances in 1961. What about this bijou of a musical didn’t capture audiences across the pond?
NYC (1947) 725 performances
London (1947) 55 performances
Finian’s Rainbowis a musical that challenged American audiences in 1947 when it opened on Broadway, with its themes of racism and cleverly-veiled Communism. Despite its glorious E.Y. Harburg/Burton Lane score, the musical didn’t find success in the West End. Was Finian’s Rainbow just too radical or was it just too American to appeal to British audiences?
NYC (1959) 795 performances
London (1962) 56 performances
It’s not hard to understand why this musical had trouble appealing overseas, as Fiorello! is a musical about one of New Yok City’s most well-known mayors and not a figure the Brits would likely connect with. Despite winning the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize, time has made the show a dated relic in the United States, with many people not knowing who Fiorello LaGuardia even was.
NYC (1972) 3,388 performances
London (1973) 236 performances
Everyone thinks of Grease as a colossal hit, packing in audiences wherever it is produced. This was not the case when the musical, which ran for 3,388 performances in NY opened in London. Was it too American in its depiction of 1950s youth? This crowd-pleaser lasted for a lackluster 236 performances in London.
Into the Woods
NYC (1987) 764 performances
London (1990) 186 performances
Usually a Stephen Sondheim musical is an event wherever it goes, but when Into the Woods premiered in London, it only lasted 186 performances despite a cast that included Julia McKenzie and Imelda Staunton, two of London’s great musical theatre stars. What may have detracted from its success was that the New York production (staged by James Lapine) was cast aside for a different approach to the material by director Richard Jones. Staunton and Jones received Olivier Awards for their work, but that didn’t translate to a long run for the fairy tale-inspired show.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
NYC (1985) 608 performances
London (1987) 68 performances
Here is one that stumps me. The Mystery of Edwin Drood draws so much on conventions of traditional British music hall, and it also is a musicalization of an unfinished novel by one of Britain’s most-revered authors. It would seemingly have been a hit in Great Britain. Perhaps tampering with the writings of Charles Dickins was an offense, or maybe The Mystery of Edwin Drood just didn’t appeal to Britian’s sensibilities about musical theatre?
On the Town
NYC (1944) 463 performances
London (1963) 53 performances
The oft-revived Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden/Adolph Green musical On the Town continues to delight American audiences with its story of three sailors on-leave in New York City during World War II. The excitement for On the Town didn’t translate to ticket sales when the musical opened in London. 53 performances was all the show could hold-on for, despite the awe-inspiring Jerome Robbins choreography.
NYC (1972) 1,944 performances
London (1973) 85 performances
Bob Fosse put his signature stamp on the Stephen Schwartz/Roger O. Hirson musical Pippin, shaping the musical with his brilliant staging and masterful choreography to the point of getting credit as one of its book writers. Pippin was an explosion of dance, running 1,944 performances in New York. Many felt that Fosse’s staging elevated the show to greatness, saving its serviceable book from its ambling mediocrity. Were Londoners more discriminating in their taste or did they just see through the Fosse magic? Pippin lasted for only 85 performances in the West End.
NYC (1969) 1,217 performances
London (1970) 168 performances
A musical about how the 13 Colonies declared their own emancipation from the British Empire. One cannot imagine why 1776 didn’t excite West Enders, with its anti-British rhetoric. Perhaps almost 200 years was not enough time for wounds to heal. Or, perhaps, 1776 spoke so distinctly to the American story that it failed to resonate outside of its geographical parameters.
Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
NYC (1979) 557 performances
London (1980) 157 performances
Sweeney Todd was a critical hit in New York, but it was never a runaway one. Despite winning a slew of Tony Awards including Best Musical, it ran a modest 557 performances. A story of murder, revenge and cannibalism was not exactly what your typical Broadway theatregoer was looking for (at least not in 1979). The musical was based on a British folk legend and Penny Dreadful character, and was set within the confines of the British Industrial period. That did little to heighten its appeal with West End audiences, however, where the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler piece, staged by the great Harold Prince, ran for only 157 performances. It has since found success in Britain, but its initial reception was a lukewarm one.