10 SURPRISING BROADWAY SHOW FLOPS

Writing a Broadway musical might be one of the most time-consuming, frustrating, why-did-I -chose-to-do-this-in-the-first-place creative projects there is. They say it takes seven years from the initial idea to opening on Broadway, which, if you do, is a small Christmas miracle in and of itself. Let's say you did it! There you are on opening night after all of the blood, sweat, and tears it took to get to the Great White Way, and suddenly out of nowhere, it closes. Dead as a doornail. Within days. Or weeks. WTF? Let's examine ten of the most surprising Broadway flops and ask ourselves; what went wrong?

10. Rags

 

Set during the turn of the twentieth century against the backdrop of New York City, Rags is a Jewish immigrant story in search of new opportunities and the American dream. Despite being written by Broadway titans, Charles Strouse (Annie) and Stephen Schwartz (Wicked), this musical opened on August 21, 1986, and closed on August 23, 1986!

 

Unfortunately, mixed reviews and weak box office sales turned this hopeful story into a Titanic-style voyage that barely set sail. The show did go on to receive several TONY award nominations that year and has since become a beloved choice for one-night-only benefits and galas. However, despite several rewrites and various regional theatre production here in the USA and overseas, it still is yet to have its 'day in the sun.'

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9. Carrie

 

You'd think that an adaptation of a Stephen King novel is sure to be a whopping great big hit! Not for poor Carrie, who burned in the flames of hell, becoming one of the most expensive Broadway flops to date. 

It seems in hindsight that Carrie was cursed from the get-go with near-death accidents in rehearsal and problematic prop, pig blood drowning out microphones, to ultimately scathing reviews. I did see the 2012 Off-Broadway revival, and although the stellar cast tried everything within their power to rescue the show, they couldn't change the inevitable of giving Carrie the life she deserved.

8. The Red Shoes

 

Based on the 1948 Academy Award-winning movie starring the incomparable Moira Shearer, The Red Shoes is a Hollywood masterpiece about a star female dancer torn between two men and the desire to dance.  At number eight, this Broadway musical, unlike the Prima Ballerina it depicts, did not take flight.

 

The secret sauce to a Broadway hit begins with a simpatico creative team who can quite literally complete each other's sentences. Actions speak louder than words on this show when prior to opening night, producer Martin Starger fired certain cast and company members, including the director, delaying the opening night from December 2, 1993, to December 16, 1983, and ultimately closing on December 19, 1983. Ouch!

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7. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

 

Cunning bides and stubborn brothers, this is a battle of the sexes story with both parties determined to show each other who's boss. They say 'life imitates art' or the other way around because this show was a battle from the start. Several 'stories from the road' told tales of unhappy cast members arguing with producers about creative decisions.

 

However, it did have a substantial life in getting to Broadway with two long American tours until finally reaching the Great White Way to close after five performances. A brutal review by Frank Rich in the New York Times resulted in cast members and fans picketing outside the Times building, demanding Rich retract his review. It was slightly ironic given the story of the musical that brothers and sisters united in this marvelous display of democracy. Unfortunately, not for lack of trying; this was not a battle to be won.

6. Anyone Can Whistle

 

The great Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story) and the late Arthur Laurents (Gypsy) are musical theatre gods. I could write countless lists based on these titans, but as is tradition with an entire life spent working in the theatre, the inevitable peaks and troughs result in not every show becoming Broadway gold. 

 

Corruption. Exploitation. Bankruptcy. This dark comedy/romance should have been a rollercoaster of a ride, but with songs like 'Everybody Says Don't' and 'There Won't Be Trumpets,' it's as if these two song titles were foreshadowing what was to come. The show opened on April 4, 1964, and closed six days later.

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5. Nick and Nora

 

Dashiell Hammett created the characters of Nick and Nora in his novel, The Thin Man, which has been adapted for film, tv, and even radio. Unfortunately, a stage adaptation was not on the cards, even with a brilliant creative team and an award-winning cast.

 

It's always a good idea, before opening on Broadway, to perform or tour the show out-of-town. It allows the creative team to finely tune the material and get ready for the vulture-like critics and columnists in New York City. However, the producers decided to forgo the out-of-town tryouts and replace them with a lengthier preview period which did not pay off. The plot about the murder of a film studio bookkeeper was reportedly tedious, and the audience apparently found it challenging to care about the characters, garnering the now-famous nickname, Nick & Snora!

4. The Threepenny Opera

 

Although this Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht musical, or should I say opera or operetta, has had many productions on Broadway, unfortunately, the initial run in 1933 lasted just over a week.

It undoubtedly inspired the sound and feel of many future musicals due to the jazz inspiration and German dance music of the time. However, one song in particular, 'Mack the Knife,' went on to become a 'jazz standard' and have a life of its own which is pretty ironic seeing how it's about a cold-blooded serial murderer! 

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3. High Fidelity

 

This Nick Hornby novel turned musical was unfortunately not a page-turner on Broadway despite being written by the brilliant Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and Amanda Green (Bring It On.) A record store owner knows everything about music and very little about life and, more importantly, about love. With a string of heartbreaks, can the protagonist get himself together and make his way back up the charts?

 

Having been adapted for the silver screen and most recently as an episodic tv show, one would think a musical version is a no-brainer kind of idea! Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. However, it seems to have found a life through licensing and seems a popular choice for high schools and colleges across the country, so not all is lost.

2. Merrily We Roll Along

Still to this day, we musical folk are left scratching our heads as to why this beloved Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd) musical didn't initially resonate. Critics praised the music, but the show's themes were poorly received, and the story left audiences confused due to jumping around various periods in time.

 

Original cast member Lonny Price directed a 2016 documentary titled 'Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,' which chronicled the entire journey from auditioning for the part to the big Broadway opening. It's a heartbreaking account of how brutal show business can be and the thick skin one needs in order to survive. 

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1. Leap of Faith

 

Based on the 1992 movie of the same name, this Alan Menken (almost every Disney movie you’ve ever heard of!) musical seemed to lack clarity and sincerity. A traveling con-man reverend finds himself stuck in remote Kansas, and although he tries to pull the wool over everyone's eyes, the female town Sheriff sees him for the man he truly is.

 

Even a predictable outcome of 'seeing the error of one's ways' couldn't save this $14 million musical. Although it has the longest run of any musical on this list, it closed after twenty regular performances proving that it takes more than faith to keep a show open.

These ten Broadway shows might have flopped the first time around, but many went on to find long lives not only in revivals but on other platforms such as radio, tv, and film. Sometimes it can have nothing to do with the source material but whether it is the right time to tell this particular story. I had my own experience of being in a Broadway play (Enron) that closed the week after it opened, and in hindsight, timing was a huge factor. The country was bouncing back from the 2008/2009 recession, and the last thing audiences wanted to be entertained by was a play about one of the biggest American financial disasters in history! 

 

War wounds aside, these aforementioned shows are now part of the American musical theatre lexicon and deserve celebrating in their own way. After all, they all hold pride of place on the walls of New York restaurant institution, Joe Allen in the theatre district. Next time you're in the big apple, make sure to book a table and see if you can spot all ten posters from this list, and for one night, raise a glass to the ten surprising Broadway show flops that almost made it. 

By Ben Hartley

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