At the end of this month, The Phantom of the Opera will celebrate its twenty-ninth consecutive year on Broadway. At over 12,000 performances, it is the longest running Broadway show in history, and since its closest competitor (the current revival of Chicago) clocks in at only 8,387, it is likely to hold the title for many years to come. That’s the funny thing about a hit Broadway show; unlike a blockbuster movie, it can’t really set a record after one great weekend. Sure, the ticket prices for Hamilton may be marked-up to like a thousand dollars at this point, but remember: people were also very excited about Contact, which I just learned was not based on the Jodie Foster movie. The point is, what Broadway investors really care about at the end of the day is staying power, a quality even more intangible and unpredictable on Broadway than in movies or TV. I’ve never seen Phantom, but I assume that it continues to draw the bridge and tunnel crowd because people really love mask work.
On the other side of the coin, even some of Broadway’s most notorious flops ran way longer than you’d think. The infamous Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark ran for like three years. That means when you dig a little deeper in search of Broadway’s true worst failures, you find a fascinating, depressing graveyard of shows that closed almost immediately after opening. Here are some of our favorites, in order of how long they managed to hang on.
Let’s start simple. Sixty-eight performances is hardly an overnight closure, I suppose, though it’s less than even a limited engagement. Still, it’s worth remembering that Chess—the concept-album turned musical by the guys from ABBA—was basically reverse-engineered to be the next mega-musical of the British invasion. The score retains its fair share of cult fans, but the musical itself, about U.S.-Soviet tensions played out by a Bobby Fischer-esque chess player and his Russian rival, was an unmitigated disaster on Broadway. Despite a substantial revamp of the book, designed to appeal to a New York audience, Chess could not hold a crowd. Lyricist Tim Rice later commented that Chess “costs too much brainpower for the average person to follow it.” I’m sure that was the problem.
The Civil War (61)
The Civil War is an awfully big conflict to communicate over the course of one musical, and the minds behind The Civil War clearly felt so too. Eschewing plot altogether, The Civil War takes the form of a revue that follows soldiers on both sides of the conflict, as well as the slaves caught in the middle. They were responsible for the pop, rock, and country songs that made up the bulk of the music. If this whole thing sounds like a bit of a mess, it’s because it was. Despite two Tony nominations, The Civil War closed in June of 1999, and hasn’t been seen on Broadway since.
The Rocky Horror Show (45)
It’s strange to think of the stage version of The Rocky Horror Show as a Broadway flop, considering the immortal midnight popularity of its film adaptation. And, at least initially, it wasn’t a flop at all. Having been picked up by eccentric producer Lou Adler a mere thirty-six hours after he saw a performance, Ricky Horror previously had successful runs in L.A., Sydney, and Melbourne. The cast had just filmed The Rocky Horror Picture Show in England and was now headed for a Broadway run in New York. Victory lap, right? Unfortunately, Broadway theatre-goers were too weirded out by this singularly bizarre musical to let it live long. Rocky Horror got the last laugh, however, eventually becoming the longest running theatrical release in film history.
All About Me (20)
God, something in me really wishes All About Me had been a hit. This joint effort by Christopher Durang, Michael Feinstein, Barry Humphries, and Humphries’ drag-alter-ego Dame Edna Everage was a deliberate throwback to comedy-duo revues with a clever twist: Feinstein and Dame Edna were rivals who were being forced to star alongside each other. It was only scheduled for a limited engagement anyway, but closed prematurely. Durang was fine; Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike hit Broadway three short years later. The Dame Edna character was retired two years later, in 2012, but has made a few subsequent appearances.
Everybody, Brandon Jacob-Jenkins’ riff on the ancient, anonymous English morality play Everyman, will open at the Signature Theatre on January 31st. Given the track records of both Jenkins and Signature, it will probably fare better than Dude (The Highway Life), the similar 1972 musical from the creators of Hair. Everyman is potent and interesting as a source document. Everything else about Dude was remarkably ill-advised. The theater was gutted and renovated for the purposes of the production, in an attempt to make every section of the space some kind of allegory (Earth, Heaven, Hell, treetops, mountains, valleys etc.). The orchestra was placed around the edges of the theatre. The titular “Dude” was originally played by twenty-three year old Kevin Geer, only to be replaced by eleven year old Ralph Carter. After sixteen disastrous previews, the script was largely rewritten, leading to sixteen incomprehensible performances, and no more.
Personally, I love Enron, Lucy Prebble’s largely unseen drama about the rise and fall of Enron and its chief masterminds, Jeffrey Skilling, Claudia Roe, and Andy Fastow. It was Shakespearean in scope and content, but giddy and bizarre in execution. The dull mathematics of the Enron scandal are rendered as exciting as anything in The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short, thanks to the inclusion of shadow companies with the heads of velociraptors, energy trading depicted through pulsing green lightsaber dances, etc. They loved it in London, it had Norbert Leo Butz and a Tony-nominated turn from Stephen Kunken as Fastow. Then, it was murdered in the Times and vanished with substantially less fanfare than Enron itself. It deserved better.
High Fidelity (13)
Upon reflection, it’s impossible to overstate the influence of High Fidelity on me as someone who wears sweaters. The John Cusack movie adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel is a classic, focusing on a vinyl-obsessed record store owner processing his most recent breakup. The High Fidelity musical was adapting a kind of niche property, but still it had a lot going for it. David Lindsay-Abaire was tackling the book, while a pre-Next to Normal Tom Kitt took care of the music, writing each song in the style of a different pop or rock artist. Ultimately, nothing seemed to work besides Amanda Green’s (Bring It On) lyrics. Thankfully, High Fidelity has found a second life in regional productions.