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There’s No Success Like Failure in Musical Theatre

Spider-Man Musical: Biggest Flop in a Decade? - HOWI

Musicals can flop with critics, but hit at box offices, or vice versa. Happy is the show that appeals to both. Yet neither guarantees longevity in showbiz.

In Love Minus Zero/No Limit (1965), Bob Dylan sang: ‘She knows there’s no success like failure/And that failure’s no success at all’. But in the mixed-up world of musical theatre, failure can mean success; success can be fleeting. A critical panning often makes audiences flood in, to disagree.

The musical The Producers (2001) from a 1968 film, featured two producers who deliberately sold shares in a Broadway flop, but it became a hit. That’s the musical world, often topsy-turvy.

No Success Formula

Musical theatre is an art form integrating dance, drama, song and music to tell a story. Lighter tales or heavier sagas, they can be comic or tragic (or both). Themes range from love, jealousy, betrayal to murder. One test is that a musical should stand alone as a play if the music were removed.

The story, (book, libretto), dancing, music, dialogue and song lyrics make ingredients for musical theatre, and increasingly, modern technological effects are part of the showbiz razzmatazz audiences expect. Any single part from plot, characters, instrumental or songs, advances the story. Sometimes the songs are poetry set to music. So, given the number of elements in a musical, only one needs to fail, for a musical not to triumph.

Through the past three hundred years more musicals have failed and/or disappeared into obscurity than remain as gold standards, fondly revived by professionals and amateurs alike. Showboat, Oklahoma, Carousel, My Fair Lady, Chicago, Annie, Porgy & Bess, West Side Story, South Pacific, Chess, Evita, Starlight Express, Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar, Phantom of the Opera are household works.

How many know enough to rate Song of Norway, Sons of Ham, Allegro, La Belle Paree, Keep Off the Grass, Darktown Follies, Do I Hear a Waltz? The Gay Hussars and One Touch of Venus? Even a success first time round may flop in revival. The Wiz was a four year hit onstage and touring in the US from 1975; but revivals in America and London in 1984-85 lasted merely two weeks.

Taste Has to do With Success

When Imagine This closed, Matt Wolf blogged on The Guardian Dec 08 that the wonder was that the production set in the Warsaw ghetto among a ‘Jewish community apparently willing to put on bad Vegas-style floor shows on their way to extermination, lasted as long as it did’. He felt if it had opened on Broadway rather than London, it wouldn’t have lasted a week. and Flops

Imagine That producer Beth Trachtenberg felt narrow-minded critics shouldn’t make moral judgements on subject matter (the Holocaust) or believe: ‘musicals are limited in emotional impact and meaningful subject matter’. In this case, the paying public didn’t like it either. It closed after a fortnight of previews and a month of shows, shortly after the start of 2008’s global economic downturn.

The fact is that Nazis in musicals: The Sound of Music, Cabaret or Springtime for Hitler did not put critics or audiences off. Female convicts singing prior to hanging in Chicago, again, failed to dampen enthusiasm for that long-running classic. So, it must be to do with taste.

Having said that, the successful Thalidomide the Musical in Britain worked by starring actual victims of thalidomide. Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Stephen Sondheim’s celebration of the macabre Victorian melodrama-bloodfest, ran only 157 performances in London after a longer run Stateside in 1979-80.

Only when the musical was transposed to film by Tim Burton in 2007 starring Johnny Depp, did it find the success that musically/dramatically it deserved. The high count of butchered bodies and cannibalism inherent in Mrs Lovett’s pies, did not stop it being a hit. Taste is indefinable, then.

Some Stinkers

Marguerite, from Dumas’ novel La Dame aux Camelias, updated the Nazi occupation of Paris with a 40-year old woman, mistress of a Nazi officer and in an affair with a young resistance fighter. Michel Legrand’s music, book by Alain Boublil, Schonberg and Kent, lyrics by Boubil & Kretzmer weren’t enough. It previewed in London May 2008; closed in September.

In theory, putting Margaret Mitchell’s US Civil War classic novel (and movie) Gone With the Wind on stage as a musical, was a winner. But 2008’s London production was slammed by critics: ‘is a small well-placed tornado in the vicinity of the theatre too much to hope for?’ (Standard); ‘the show is neither as bad as one feared nor as good as one has a right to expect’ (Independent); ‘there is something extravagantly pointless about the whole enterprise’ (Guardian). It ran two months.

Although The Drowsy Chaperone lasted longer on Broadway, it survived less than three months in London, in the summer of 2007. The public just didn’t take to it, despite some critical approval and American success.

Cartoons and Pulp Musicals

Zorro was based on a pulp fiction hero from a 1919 novella, following 1998’s film The Mask of Zorro. The first few 2008 London opening shows were cancelled through technical problems, although it did run for 9 months. Technical problems seem to be the curse of cartoon-based ideas.

Spider-Man was 2010-11’s most expensive flop. Ben Brantley, NY Times critic wrote: ‘so grievously broken in every respect that it’s beyond repair’. Advertised as lavish spectacle with dazzling special effects, its budget tripled from $25m. And still, by March 2011, it hadn’t opened, despite first previews being November 2010.

Music by Bono and the Edge and directed by Julie Taymor who staged The Lion King (9th longest running in West End musical history): the backers thought it a winning combination. But they got repeatedly delayed openings, major cast changes, technical disasters and cast injuries from high-wire stunts that went wrong.

Critics went to see it anyway in order to slam it, satirical papers and TV programmes had a field day. It may never open, and seemed unlikely to transfer anywhere. However, the ironic effect of delays and negative publicity was massive public interest. In January 2011, it was Broadway’s highest grossing show.

It was tweaked, not revamped. Safety was tightened. The story line remained as flimsy as at the start; no new songs appeared. The fact is that delays and a ghoulish media interest in failure, made tickets hot desirables. All part of the perversity of theatre, and musical theatre in particular.

And when word of mouth dries up, interest moves on to something recreated, revisited and remade for different times.

First published on Suite 101, 6 March 2011.

Image: Spider-Man Musical: Biggest Flop in a Decade? – HOWI

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