10 For 10: Ten Flop Musicals of the Last Ten Years That Deserve a Second Look
A while back, I wrote a piece about flop musicals that deserved a second chance on Broadway. Many of you wrote to me and wondered why I hadn’t mentioned any recent shows. When I write about this kind of topic, I typically look at older titles and prefer to wait for the dust to settle on more recent shows in order to gain some objectivity. This does not mean I haven’t enjoyed some of the short-lived shows of the last decade. It may be too soon to say that any of them deserve revivals, but I think it is fair to say that some of them deserve a second look. So, as to assuage those who think I’m trapped in the past, here are 10 for 10, ten musicals from the last ten years that I think had plenty to offer and most likely deserve a second look.
I thoroughly enjoyed Tuck Everlasting. Having read the novella when I was younger, I had always thought the premise had musical possibilities. The story of a family that drank from a spring that gave them the gift/curse of eternal life makes such poignant commentary about how view, use and waste time. The Broadway production, with a score by Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen is infectious, vibrant, and equal parts refreshingly new and possessing of an old-fashioned musical comedy sound. Claudia Shear and Tim Federle’s book was a faithful adaptation of Natalie Babbit’s book, taking a few liberties, but in that necessary way that transitions a book into dramatic form. For its final moments alone, a brilliantly-staged sequence using a revolve to show the passing of time, Tuck Everlasting deserved a much longer run.
The Bridges of Madison County
Jason Robert Brown’s score for The Bridges of Madison County is so lovely and deeply emotional, you almost forget that you are watching a difficult swallow story about justified infidelity. Marsha Norman did her usual expert job adapting a novel for the stage, mining Robert James Waller’s story, about an Iowa housewife who has a dalliance with a handsome photographer, for all its passion and character-driven plot. Where The Bridges of Madison County didn’t ignite for me was in its staging and design. The show looked clumsy and clunky, something that would be easily rectified in a future production.
This may be the most heartbreaking flop on this list. Bright Star was a unique musical, something a little different han what we are used to in a Broadway show. The show’s bluegrass-flavored score by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell conjured the perfect atmosphere for a story set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Martin also crafted a book that was well-rounded with rich storytelling and revealing flashbacks. The musical is inspired by real events. It follows literary editor Alice Murphy who takes a journey into the past to deal with her ghosts over a child she lost when she was young.
Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
It is always exciting for me to learn about older musicals, especially since we have so little record of many of them. Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed took us back in time to revisit one of the most-successful African-American revues to play Broadway, telling us the ups and downs of its journey there. Sure, the show utilizes old songs and there was nothing new about the score, but Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed felt new and exciting nevertheless.
Bonnie & Clyde
Typically, I’m not the biggest fan of Frank Wildhorn musicals. I love his melodies, but I am seldom impressed by the lyricists he works with or the stories he chooses to tell. I was pleasantly surprised by the score for Bonnie & Clyde and particularly the lyrics of Don Black. I think most of us went into the show wondering what could possibly be musical about a romance between two notorious outlaws, but much of Bonnie & Clyde works musically. The book by Ivan Menchell also works and rises to the occasion of telling a story of two characters who shouldn’t be sympathetic, and yet are.
The Scottsboro Boys
Of all the shows I’ve mentioned on this list, The Scottsboro Boys was the one that I saw the most. In its short run, I went to the theatre five-times to revel in Susan Stroman’s brilliant staging and to drink in Kander and Ebb’s evocative and intense score. True, setting a show about racial discrimination within the confines of a minstrel show may have been controversial, but it was deft commentary about how whites treated blacks in the 1930s delivered as sharp satire. If Stroman’s direction was extraordinary, it was nothing in comparison to her riveting choreography, especially a musical number where a teenage boy contemplates the nightmarish prospect of going to the electric chair. The Scottsboro Boys may have been too dark and edgy for Broadway, but it sure packed a wallop.
Hands on a Hardbody
Those contests where cars are given away and where a group contestants put a hand on a vehicle and must be the last person standing to win have always intrigued me. What do people do and think about that as they stand there, hour-after-hour. I was extremely tickled when Doug Wright, Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green decided to adapt S.R. Binder’s documentary Hands on a Hardbodyfor the musical stage, the story of a handful of people vying in this fashion for a pickup truck. Hands on a Hardbodyis filled to the brim with textured character sketches of very human, three-dimensional characters.
Richard Obercracker and Robert Taylor’s musical Bandstand may have had a short run, but it was thankfully preserved on film for those of us who didn’t get to see it in the theatre. At the cinema, I was surprised that the who didn’t run. It was a delightful musical, full of delicious swing and big band style music, athletic dancing, and fairly strong story about a World War II vet who creates a band out of musicians who also served. It did win the Tony Award for Best Choreography (Andy Blankenbueler), and boy did that dance invigorate the show.
What an a amazing premise for a musical, a story that keeps repeating itself with slight variations. It opens the door for the opportunity to do interesting things with musical motifs. Tim Minchin’s score for the stage adaptation of the Harold Ramis film Groundhog Day capitalized on these possibilities while also being hypnotically thoughtful at times. I am not sure if the piece will ever thoroughly work as a musical, but it is such intriguing material that I don’t think it will be forgotten.
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
I have to admit that I was entirely skeptical about SpongeBob SquarePantsas a musical. A longtime fan of the cartoon, I could not envision how it would translate to the stage. Thank goodness that wasn’t my responsibility because I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Though I am not a fan of the show’s score, it certainly resonated with a lot of people and I am not one to assume that just because I don’t something that it can’t play to someone else. I think we have all but seen the last of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical. It brought enough joy to enough people, I’m pretty sure it would be a welcome addition to this list of “second looks.”