Let it be known, I love my flops. I have been fascinated by them for years, ever since my interest in Broadway musicals became deeply profound in late 2000, early 2001 and I decided I wanted every recording ever made. That was the year I first sampled Sondheim; Bernstein (aside from West Side Story) and I heard my first genuine flop score: Candide. This fascination continued to grow until I wanted to hear every possible score out there. I never realized that I would hear some of the songs on this list, but I have been fortunately blessed to know them.
Here are a few of my favorite flop numbers, perhaps the first in a series of blogs, perhaps not. We’ll see. Order is random; just as they come to me.
“One More Walk Around the Garden” – Carmelina (Burton Lane-Alan Jay Lerner; 1979; St. James: 17 performances) An adaptation of the popular Gina Lollobrigida film, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (one woman; her daughter; the three former WWII GI’s who could be the father – elements conspicuously present in Mamma Mia) features this hauntingly simplistic and poignantly nostalgic trio for the three soldiers as they reminisce. Achingly beautiful.
“Sur Le Quais” – Lolita, My Love (John Barry- Alan Jay Lerner; 1971; closed closed out of town in Boston) Dorothy Loudon‘s performance as Charlotte Haze is perhaps the greatest thing this ill-fated adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov‘s extraordinary novel has to offer. In looking at the material as an example of creating an adaptation, it works well; the pederasty is just plain uncomfortable to stomach when dramatized, especially in a musical. Loudon stopped the show with this Gallic-flavored romp with Humbert midway through the first act.
“Duet for One (The First Lady of the Land)” – 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Leonard Bernstein- Alan Jay Lerner; 1976; Mark Hellinger: 7 performances) A musical covering race relations and the first one hundred years of the White House. Lofty ambitions basically did the show in the from beginning. With a libretto that plays more like a musical revue than a book show; and two actors (Ken Howard and the divine Patricia Routledge) serving as each President and First Lady, the show’s strength is in its performers and its score. There is not enough time in a 2 1/2 hour musical to possibly cover all the ground that I’m sure the creative team hoped to. The show never completely gelled; much was changed and revised and the show was a critical and financial disaster in NY, lasting a week; and Bernstein refused to allow the original cast album to be made, which is unfortunate. In this act two showstopper, one of the most daunting and brilliantly conceived in a flop or hit, Routledge switches between the characters of Julia Grant and Lucy Hayes at the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes. For almost nine minutes; we get the history of the election, the end of the era of Reconstruction and racial commentary thrown in among the barbed insults the character hurl at one another. She’s a schizophrenic marvel as she created two clearly delineated characters while utilizing a chest resonance for one and a coloratura soprano for the other. Genius.
“Glitter and Be Gay” – Candide (Leonard Bernstein-Richard Wilbur, John LaTouche, & Dorothy Parker; 1956; Martin Beck: 73 performances). Sure, it’s gone on to glory in opera repertories and numerous revivals around the world – and its overture is a popular favorite among classical orchestras. But Candide was a pretty hefty flop in 1956, dividing critics (still does) and just not pulling in the business. Barbara Cook, that legend divine, received one of the most difficult piece for sopranos in the musical theatre canon (hell, and opera) with this demanding coloratura soprano aria. Not only are you expected to hit high Eb’s above C, you must also be witty, satiric and hilarious. Eight times a week. It goes without saying that Cook’s rendition is definitive.
“It’s Enough to Make a Lady Fall in Love”/”Let’s See What Happens”/”Not on Your Nellie” – Darling of the Day (Jules Styne-E.Y. Harburg; 1968; George Abbott: 32 performances). See my yesterday’s post.
“He Had Refinement” – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Arthur Schwartz-Dorothy Fields; 1951; Alvin: 267 performances). Speculation as to the failure of this problematic yet endearing musical of the Betty Smith novel (brilliant bildungsroman I might add; yes I was an English major) was due to the rearrangement in structure, with the novel’s protagonist Francie taking a back seat to the parents (this included her absence from the entire first act as well). Also Shirley Booth, who received top billing for her part as Cissy, a secondary character, seemed to have thrown off the balance of the show because she walked away with it in her pocket. The force that is Booth displayed her requisite earthy charm, gracious down-to-earth humor and effortless star quality throughout the evening. The most memorable of these moments was her loving recollection of her “first Harry” in laugh out loud hilarious “He Had Refinement.” (An honorable mention here to the glorious yet underrated act one finale, the soaring “I’ll Buy You a Star”).
“And I Was Beautiful” – Dear World (Jerry Herman; 1969; Mark Hellinger: 132 performances). There is much to enjoy in Herman’s score: the showstopping “I Don’t Want to Know,” the intricate trio “The Tea Party,” “Kiss Her Now” and “I’ve Never Said I Love You” could all fit the bill here, but for me it is this devastating ballad about the loss of love – and the effects time has on said loss – sung by a resplendent Angela Lansbury as the Madwoman of Chaillot.
“Sez I/If It Isn’t Everything” – Donnybrook! (Johnny Burke; 1961; 46th Street: 68 performances) The musical version of the highly popular The Quiet Man didn’t fare well on Broadway, but possesses a delightful score, with performances from Art Lund, Joan Fagan, Eddie Foy Jr and the ever reliable Susan Johnson. Ellen Roe Danaher (Mary Kate in the film), played by Fagan, sings this spirited Celtic jig, one of the liveliest numbers to ever open a musical, in which she explains to her family her philosophies on love – and how she hasn’t found the right man. Think of it as a fiery, belty Irish cousin to Brigadoon’s “Waitin’ for My Dearie” and Oklahoma!’s “Many a New Day.”
“A Time for Singing” – A Time for Singing (John Morris-Gerald Freedman; 1966; Broadway: 41 performances). Tessie O’Shea leads this exuberant title song here; a musical adaptation of How Green Was My Valley that has a woefully unknown gem of a score. Nothing but sheer joy emanates from this song. Encores!, come on!
“Please Hello” – Pacific Overtures. (Stephen Sondheim; 1976; Winter Garden: 193 performances). Only Sondheim could write a showstopper that effectively told the history of Western imperialism in Japan in the 19th century. He cleverly uses a musical style from each country represented to characterize the national diplomacy (Sousa march for the US, Gilbert and Sullivan patter for England, can-can for France, etc.). It’s a nine minute history lesson that works wonders.
If I could, I would post each song on here, but I don’t think that’s possible.