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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Edward Albee’s Lolita was not the first adaptation of Nabokov’s novel to crash and burn on Broadway. Ten years earlier, the musical Lolita, My Love closed during its out of town tryout in Boston; critics noted that without Nabokov’s voice, the material was just obscene. Albee solved that problem—Ian Richardson appeared as Nabokov—but at the expense of activating the material. Critics trashed the play for being boring, incompetent, and hateful. Presumably, upon hearing of the play’s cancellation, Donald Sutherland (Humbert Humbert) scowled his signature scowl.
After West Side Story and Gypsy, it was fair to assume the third collaboration between Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents was going to be a sure thing. However, the production was plagued with money problems from the get-go. Laurents and Sondheim had difficulty financing the project, which, in turn, stressed out Sondheim and slowed his progress on the music. Once the money was finally raised and rehearsals began in earnest, Laurents was confronted with criticisms of the show’s message and scope—their story of a town battling bankruptcy was deemed weird and confusing. Laurents went to work re-staging the show instead of rewriting it, and Anyone Can Whistle opened and closed quickly thanks to negative reviews. However, its appeal to Sondheim die-hards has lead to many revivals and encore productions around the country. And hey: at least it introduced us to Angela Lansbury.
We speak not, of course, of the original Broadway production of Neil Simon’s hit play, which launched Matthew Broderick’s career, ran for a whopping three years, and became one of the most successful and produced plays in history. No, we speak, of course, of its 2009 revival. Though planned to run in repertory with Simon’s Broadway Bound, Brighton’s slow sales ironically prevented the former play from opening on Broadway altogether. Brighton Beach Memoirs closed after just nine performances, with an overkill post-mortem in the New York Times blaming everything from an absence of star power and a lackluster marketing campaign to a dearth of “wow factor,” whatever that means. Though Simon’s Promises, Promises was successfully revived a few years ago, a production of a Neil Simon play has not been attempted on Broadway since.
Remember Galt McDermont? The guy who wrote Hair? Turns out the failure of Dude was just the beginning of his very shitty 1972. A mere five weeks after that show imploded, his space rock opera Via Galactica closed after seven performances at the Uris Theatre, becoming one of the first Broadway shows to lose more than a million dollars. A bummer for him, and theoretically for us; on paper, Via Galactica actually sounded kind of cool. A bunch of social outcasts live on an asteroid in 2972, and one of them collects space trash in a spaceship called the Helen of Troy — a solid name for a spaceship. It was also originally titled Up!, which is strange, because it sounds a lot more like WALL-E. The plot was so confusing that a synopsis was inserted into the Playbill, but audiences saw through that transparently desperate move anyway.
Ah, yes. A mid 80s musical about an unfeeling genius who becomes obsessed with his life’s work and ultimately pushes away those closest to him. Oh, no, not Sunday in the Park with George. I’m talking about Into the Light, in which a physicist attempts to discover the truth behind the Shroud of Turin. I offer this point of comparison merely to suggest that both musicals sounded cold and arcane in the abstract. Into the Light does not sound like a musical in the first place, but that does not mean that it couldn’t necessarily make a good one. Unfortunately, it did not. It did not make for a good one at all.
A two man musical on Broadway was doomed from the start, through no fault of its own. Which is a shame. Story of My Life was praised as “authentic and affecting” in its portrait of the lifelong friendship between two men from the ages of six to thirty-five. Despite closing after five performances, Story of My Life was nominated for four Drama Desk awards, including Best Musical. Moreover, due to its status as a two-hander, Story of My Life has proved itself endlessly producible, and has been performed all over the world. Still, it’s depressing that such a boldly minimalist and restrained musical never had a chance in a crowded field of big-budget extravaganzas desperate to sell something.
This, my friends, is the creme de la creme of quick flops. Stephen King’s Carrie was a great book, a great movie, and a painfully expensive failure of a musical. After a tryout which had trouble staging the iconic pig’s blood scene without ruining their lead actress’ microphone, and an incident with a set piece that almost decapitated Barbara Cook, Carrie miraculously transferred to Broadway at the expense of an astronomical—for the time—eight million dollars. The houses were full, but the reviews were scathing enough that investors immediately pulled their money and forced the show to close. MCC staged a revamped Off-Broadway revival in 2012; one that was met with similar scorn and also closed early. To this day it stands as one of the most famous and expensive flops in Broadway history.
Prymate came and went without notice. Mark Medoff’s (Children of a Lesser God) weird and dark play about scientists fighting over the fate of an aging gorilla was granted a spontaneous New York premiere after being performed at Florida State University, then vanished quietly after it failed to garner a single Tony nomination. The centerpiece of the play was Andre De Shields’s provocative and wordless performance as the gorilla. Some felt the choice was bold and unflinching; a conversation starter. Others, reasonably, did not think having a black man play a gorilla was a particularly sensitive idea. Audiences stayed away and that was that.
Sequels to musicals are generally a risky endeavor to begin with. They inherently rely on an audience’s familiarity with the original. Plus, Broadway musicals are far more expensive. If you missed the opportunity to pay and arm and a leg to see the first show, chances are you’d be hard pressed to do the same thing again twenty years later to see the adventures continue. Bye Bye Birdie was a big hit though, and Bring Back Birdie had Chita Rivera, reprising her role as Rosie. The premise was interesting enough: Albert and Rosie attempt to track down rock star Conrad Birdie, who disappeared twenty years earlier, in order to convince him to stage a comeback at the Grammy’s. The problem is that if you’re familiar at all with Conrad’s loathsome presence in the original musical, you’d know that vanishing off the face of the Earth and possibly dying was the best thing that ever happened to him. Or us. I’m still convinced that what sunk this musical in the end was the absence of Bye Bye Birdie’s charming “Bartender” character I played to such good notices at a children’s theatre in Arlington, Massachusetts twelve years ago.
We’ve reached the home stretch and main attraction: those Broadway shows that only survived a single regular performance. Kelly was fraught with tension from the beginning. The writers were reportedly so distraught over the changes forced upon them by the show’s producers that they attempted to get the New York Supreme Court to prevent Kelly from opening. It also centered around a group of gamblers in their attempt to prevent a local daredevil from surviving a jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, which is just… bizarre. Turns out, literally no one got what they wanted. Kelly opened and closed on the same night, with Howard Taubman savagely writing in the Times: “Ella Logan was written out of Kelly before it reached the Broadhurst Theater Saturday night. Congratulations, Ms. Logan.”
Allan Gurganus’ 700 hundred page debut novel, upon which this one-woman show was based, was a big deal back in 1990 and a massive best seller. That doesn’t mean that it was a great idea to turn it into a Broadway show thirteen years later. Books—particularly large ones—don’t tend to have as long a shelf-life as a source material on Broadway. That’d be like picking a long-ass hit book from 2004, say, Ron Chernow’s…Nevermind. The point is this play did not go over very well at all. Ellen Burstyn was perfectly cast as the titular widow, who tells the story of her long and storied marriage to a confederate captain with vivacity and charm. But even she could not save this show, which tanked after one performance.
Carrie might be creme de la creme of Broadway flops due to its cost, but it is not remotely considered to be the worst show in Broadway history. That dubious distinction belongs to Moose Murders, a 1983 “mystery farce” that stunned critics during previews and did not last past its first regular performance. Mystery farces are lots of fun! Clue is a mystery farce. Clue is very good. Clue does not feature a son attempting incest with his mother or a “mummified paraplegic” rising to kick a guy inexplicably dressed as a moose in the balls. Clive Barnes, echoing Howard Taubman, commented on one actress leaving the production before it opened thusly: “some people have all the luck.” It is one of the chief regrets of my life that I was not alive to see this show.
Oliver Hailey was a prolific playwright and TV writer known by his friends and admirers for his taut dialogue and darkly comic stories. Unfortunately, for our purposes, he is better known for his Broadway debut, First One Asleep, Whistle, which ran for one performance in 1966. Or, for his second Broadway play, Father’s Day, which ran for one performance in 1971. Or for his 1981 Broadway play, I Won’t Dance, which also ran for only one performance. One critic famously called Hailey the “most produced, least successful” playwright in New York, but even Hailey himself seemed to have a good sense of humor about his own failures. According to his wife, he would say of his plays, “they ran all evening.” May some higher power grant us the grace and humility of a 1981 Oliver Hailey. He spent more time on Broadway than Moose Murders, and that’s an achievement in and of itself.