Who Wants to Put on a (Flop) Musical?

I’m bored and in need of a break from all the writing I’ve been doing about the incredible amount of theatre I’ve seen lately. So I did whatever anyone would do when looking to unwind: I decided to check in on the Music Theatre International website, the biggest of the licensing agencies for musicals in the US to see if there were any recent additions to their catalogue. Now, many of you know that I really love the flop musicals. Most of them being lost gems that either failed due to a leaden libretto or public indifference but offering a score of merit. Then there are the real dogs…shows that might make for great camp in revival (and that’s about it… here’s a shout-out to Whoop-Up just for our pal Chris Caggiano!)

While browsing, I was rather surprised to find that there are so many of these shows whose rights are available for amateur/educational performance. Well, if you and your amateur dramatic society want to venture way outside the box this season, here are just a few of the selections at hand. (Sadly enough, my beloved Darling of the Day doesn’t appear to be available for licensing).

MTI: They’ve got some of your more famous: Anyone Can Whistle, Merrily We Roll Along, The Baker’s Wife and Candide. But they’ve also got Amen Corner, a musical version of James Baldwin’s play of the same name by the creators of the mid-70s hit Shenandoah. Lightning didn’t strike twice, as the show folded after 28 performances in spite of the presence of Ruth Brown and current Tony nominee Roger Robinson. If your cast is more operatically inclined, there’s Kean, Wright and Forrest’s only truly original score for Broadway.

Others include By the Beautiful Sea, a charming if uninspired vehicle originally written for Shirley Booth, while Divorce Me Darling is the the flop sequel to The Boy Friend set ten years after the end of the latter. Plus they’ve got a rarity such as 13 Daughters, a 1961 bomb about a Hawaiian trying to marry off his, well you guessed it, thirteen daughters. The cast album available is the original Honolulu company, never released on CD. Plus, they also offer Bock & Harnick’s Tenderloin, the one where “they were taking a risk to write a show about whores.” The score is quite appealing, especially the showstopping act one finale “How the Money Changes Hands” but the show itself creaks.

Samuel French: Kander and Ebb’s half revue/half musical 70, Girls, 70 offers choice material for your talented senior citizens. The literary crowd might be intrigued/appalled by Angel, the musical of Look Homeward, Angel, which lasted all of five performances at the Minskoff in 1978. Ken Mandelbaum has a chapter of his book dedicated to all the musical sequels that have failed: The Best Little Whorehouse in Public is one of the more reviled bombs in recent memory.

If your audience wants to know what happened to Nora after the door slam heard around the world, follow up your Ibsen with some Comden, Green & Hackady with A Doll’s Life, which followed Nora in the years after the play. Donnybrook!, the musical version of Maurice Walsh’s The Quiet Man, deserved a better fate with its spirited score (and a rip-roaring opening “Sez I” for the leading lady) by Johnny Burke. Anyone sick of Finian’s Rainbow on St. Patty’s could offer this as an amusing alternative.

Bob Merrill’s Henry Sweet Henry was too lightweight a show to last on Broadway, but it’s got its simple joys, especially the showstopping “Nobody Steps on Kafritz.” Though they changed the title from The Gay Life to The High Life, the musical about a playboy falling for a virginal ingenue in 1900 Vienna has an astonishingly beautiful score, even using the cymbalom in its orchestration for period authenticity. Great show for a non-singing lead and a stunning soprano (Barbara Cook’s finest cast album performance).

Juno is one of those musicals that has a cult following because of its recording, but has never worked successfully onstage, but has a fascinating score by Marc Blitzstein. A real obscurity: the disastrous Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen, a musical version of The Teahouse of the August Moon that wasn’t even recorded. If you’ve got a sassy sardonic middleaged contralto, there’s the Noel Coward’s lightweight but amusing Sail Away. (Though no sign of The Girl Who Came to Supper anywhere). Ever dream of staging Skyscraper or Smile? Guess what, you can. Aficionados will turn out in droves if you stage Three Wishes for Jamie, or give them the one performance wonder The Utter Glory of Morrissey Hall about a British headmistress driven to insanity by the hijinks of her students (it’s a musical comedy).

Rodgers & Hammerstein: Sure they license the R&H hits, but if you’re bored with Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music, you can always put up a production of Pipe Dream if you’re so willing, and if you’ve got a grandmotherly madam type. The five performance failure Rags offers your operatic soprano big with one of the best scores of the 80s, but very little in terms of script. (This was the show where diva Teresa Stratas threw a chair at Charles Strouse).

A real forgotten gem is the near operatic A Time for Singing, a 41 performance failure that brought How Green Was My Valley to Broadway. While the show took some poor creative license with the story, the resulting show deserved much better than it received. Another utterly satisfying score is The Grass Harp, an intimate musical based on Truman Capote’s story and play. It’s been argued that the story is too slight for musicalizing – and that’s completely valid, but the music and lyrics are endlessly charming. They also own the Irving Berlin catalog, offering the more obscure Miss Liberty and Mr. President. Interestingly enough, while the rights are available for I Remember Mama and Rex are nowhere to be found.

Tams-Witmark: If the leading lady of your society imagines herself something of an Angela Lansbury type, you can test her mettle with the enchanting Jerry Herman musical Dear World, whose appeal hinges on the performance of the madwoman Countess Aurelia. If you hate your fanbase, you can give them Bring Back Birdie, the much-reviled sequel to Bye Bye Birdie. Without Chita to keep the mess interesting, why bother? Best musical winner Hallelujah, Baby! is available for African American musical actors to explore, apologies for the script but none for the fun, if lightweight, score from Styne, Comden & Green. The Golden Apple is challenging, but rewarding in its Americanized update of Homer’s epics set around Mount Olympus, Washington in the years after the Spanish-American war. You can even put on Illya Darling, the musical version of Never on Sunday, for that one fan of the cast album in your region.

So if you’re tired of producing yet another Camelot or Thoroughly Modern Millie, now you know that there are endless possibilities to explore, especially if you enjoy a little risk now and then.