“Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & The Biggest Flop”

In Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & The Biggest Flop of the Season, critic/columnist/author Peter Filichia took it upon himself to examine the Broadway musicals of the last half century, putting together his personal list for the biggest hit and flop of each year. Now, that’s not to say his list is a best and worst sort of deal; he’s more interested in which show was the biggest success or the biggest fall from grace.¬† He offers analysis of the shows, plus some unique perspectives on the material. On some of the biggest hits of all time, he offers some suggestions that might have made the show better. There are a couple of hits that he clearly has little love for, as well. With financial success as the most critical factor, it’s much easier to pinpoint the break-out hits of the season than failures. In dealing with the flops, he also takes into consideration critical response, award recognition, and most importantly, expectations.

From 1959-2009, he gives us glimpses not only into the good and bad, but also into the shifts in sensibilities and styles over the years. Also, Filichia spices up his conversation by following the traditional definition of a Broadway season June 1 to May 31 – not the Tony season, which means that some Best Musical winners end up in a face-off.

A couple quick examples: I found myself nodding in agreement with Peter’s assessment of 1776, for which he makes an incredible valid argument that it has the greatest libretto of all time (and gives his reasons why it trumps Gypsy in his estimation, too). On the other hand, I wasn’t as enthralled with 1969-70’s greatest hit, Applause, which he listed certain attributes to defend it in comparison to the film. (Not saying he prefers the show, but just pointing out certain strengths). But I think we can both agree it’s not an especially revivable property (After that Encores! concert, I wouldn’t mind if I never saw it again). It’s his opinion, for sure, but his statements are valid and he is able to back them all up.

He goes into the some greater detail with the flops, running the gamut from The Pink Jungle, a camp mess starring Ginger Rogers and Agnes Moorehead that folded out of town to 9 to 5. Frankly, it is usually more interesting reading how it all went wrong than right, which is part of the appeal for flop enthusiasts like myself. There are even a couple of shows listed here that I knew nothing about, particularly one that closed before rehearsals even started. More shows fail than succeed, and therefore there are some years where he weighs several different options before settling on his final choice. There are also some interesting correlations as creative staffs find themselves with the biggest hit one season..then the biggest failure some time later. (There are also three musical sequels on the list). Stephen Sondheim isn’t represented in the biggest hits column, but has three shows in the failure column. As a consolation, Peter allows the composer/lyricist the final word. And, yes, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue makes the cut, and not without the requisite praise for Patricia Routledge’s “Duet for One.”

The book makes for a rather quick, engaging read, each show receives similar treatment to the flops in Ken Mandelbaum’s Not Since Carrie, a compilation of essays. It’s well-researched, but I know for fact that Peter has seen many of the shows he talks about himself. His recall is impressive and can pretty much remember every single show he has seen. There are a couple of small errors here and there but nothing extraordinary (if Applause Books wants to hire me to proofread, I’m available). If you read the book, I also encourage you dropping Peter an email; not only is he incredibly gracious but he gladly welcomes the conversation (We’ve been in contact for over eight years now, starting when I was a freshman in college!).

And finally, whether or not he chose Prettybelle or Lolita My Love as the biggest flop of 1970-71, well, I don’t want to spoil everything…

New Music

Over the past couple of seasons, I’ve been generally underwhelmed by the new Broadway musicals. But taking a look at the new musical line up for 2010-2011, my interest is rather piqued. The pedigree is varied, and the ideas ranging from fascinating to bemusing. It’s just shaping up to be a memorable year all around (plays, revivals, star vehicles, etc). I’m not going to talk about the shows that will be built around pre-existing music (Rain, Priscilla Queen of the Desert) or the revivals (How to Succeed, Anything Goes). But here are some thoughts on new musicals scheduled to open this year:

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – I’m not really what anyone would deem an emo kid, however, I have a weakness for U.S. History and especially for musicals which involve historical figures and presidents (1776, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Assassins). From the Public comes this fascinating idea of telling the story of Andrew Jackson, one of our most rogue presidents (whose inauguration makes keggers look like high tea in comparison) with a rock score. I wasn’t too impressed by the press event performance, but that hasn’t curbed my interest in seeing the show when it starts performances (I tend to trust the Public Theatre’s judgment). It appears that Benjamin Walker is giving the performance of a lifetime as our nation’s 7th President. My copy of the cast album, which I won on a whim via a twitter contest, should arrive shortly. The show opens Oct. 13 at the Jacobs.

The Scottsboro Boys – This is the one that keeps popping in my head first. It’s got a score by Kander and Ebb, their last to be performed, book by David Thompson and direction/choreography from Susan Stroman. The subject matter is rather serious stuff, but having listened to the score I’m fascinated and riveted (and “Go Back Home” is one of the loveliest ballads I’ve heard in a while). The production makes use of minstrelsy as a concept/framing device. Word of mouth is extraordinary. Reviews are also quite positive, even the negative notice in the NY Times further fueled my interest. The show opens Oct 31 at the Lyceum.

Women of the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – Lincoln Center has assembled an all-star lineup here and is easily one of the most buzzed about new shows of the season. Now, an all-star lineup doesn’t guarantee success (Paradise Found, anyone?) but it certainly makes it something to look forward to. Lots of favorites in the cast: Patti, Stokes, Benanti, and leading lady Sherie Renee Scott singing a score from the highly underrated David Yazbeck under the direction of the estimable Bartlett Sher. Even if the show weren’t something to anticipate, the musical is housed in the newly renovated Belasco Theatre and I am chomping at the bit to just be inside. Opening night is scheduled for November 4.

Elf – Though I love me some Christmas and even have a Broadway playlist of Christmas related songs on my ipod, I am not a big fan of Christmas shows and spectaculars. This has always been the case; I’ve never been engaged with them as a kid, preferring concerts and meditative services to razz-matazz. Wild horses couldn’t draw me to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. However, I love Christmas movies and Elf, in particular, is a recent favorite. It’s funny and charming without being overly saccharine. I’m curious how it will adapt, especially because Ferrell is such a huge part of why the film works, but I’m ready and willing to give this one a try. Plus it’s got George Wendt as Santa, which to me seems inspired. The show opens at the Hirschfeld on November 14. Limited holiday engagement closes January 2.

SpiderMan: Turn Off the Dark – I’m tired of conjecture and innuendo; I just want to see the show and draw my opinion from that. It will be visually stunning, that’s always a given when Julie Taymor is involved. The curiosity is whether or not the script and score (by Bono and the Edge) have the substance required for a memorable evening. Then again given the hefty price tag and the names involved, this one could very well be Broadway’s answer to the Hollywood summer blockbuster. The debut performance on GMA the other day didn’t really impress me, especially in regards to star Reeve Carney. I understand it was a concert performance, but he was incredibly lacking in charisma. Peter Parker doesn’t exactly cry out for a Robert Preston type turn, but I hope Carney has the energy and wattage to carry the $50 million show. The long-delayed show will officially open December 21 at the Foxwoods (nee Hilton).

The Book of Mormon – I’ll never forget how surprised I was by South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut which was one of the funniest, most irreverent and cleverly written musical comedies in recent memory. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are now trying Broadway, with the assistance of Avenue Q Tony-winner Bobby Lopez on the lyrics. Parker and another Avenue Q alum Jason Moore will direct. Joseph Smith establishes the Mormon religion while contemporary missionaries go to Uganda. Hijinks ensue. Given the reputations of everyone involved, it’s bound to be tuneful, offbeat and an equal opportunity offender. I’m game. The show opens at the Eugene O’Neill on March 24.

Sister Act – I wish I could say I were more excited for this, but I’m not. I’m a big fan of the film and nuns in general; I remember being amazed when I was in third grade seeing groups of nuns going to the movie theatres. But I was even more amazed at how fun and enjoyable the film was. The novelty of the film’s score, taking popular Motown songs and adapting them for a religious context, is what really gave the film its charm. Alan Menken and Glenn Slater have provided a new score which doesn’t serve the film as well as one would hope. It’s got slick, entertainment value but none of that charm (and Slater’s lyrics in general tend to be rather mundane). However, there is something about this show that excites me: the truly fabulous Patina Miller. She starred in the show in London and appears to be destined for stardom. No word on whether she is coming to NY, but I hope that is the case. However, Jerry Zaks is taking over the reigns for Broadway, so we shall see how it all turns out in the end. The London production closes Oct. 30. The new musical is rumored¬† to replace Promises, Promises at the Broadway Theatre, with previews starting in March. Opening night has yet to be announced.

Wonderland – I don’t like to think of myself as a negative person. Cynical on occasion, yes. But let’s just say I’m for the most part cautiously optimistic. This is a show I just have no interest in whatsoever. Of all the new musicals opening this year it’s the one I’m least interested in seeing. Frank Wildhorn just doesn’t do it for me. Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Civil War and Dracula are all lackluster musicals and his track record – even though he managed to have three shows running simultaneously¬† – is quite disappointing. The musical is a revisionist take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But like I said, I’m cautiously optimistic and perhaps my instincts on this will be wrong. The musical opens April 17 at the Marquis.

Yank! has been pushed off for a year to overhaul its libretto, which I think is for the best. The show has promise but in its off-Broadway berth, I felt it really need work. Bobby Steggert remains attached, with David Cromer now directing (which should prove interesting). Love Never Dies is postponed again indefinitely. For now. It continues to run in London, though most people I know disliked it immensely. The score is drab; the title song sounds like the theme to The Apartment and its story is in a word, pathetic. Work continues on the show in London and plans for a Toronto run are underway. Broadway isn’t in the sights at the moment, but something tells me that unlike Whistle Down the Wind, this show may see the light of Broadway.

The Time Machine

My buddy Steve is asking folks about the original casts they would have liked seeing on his site. (Be sure to drop over to vote in his poll!) This was originally going to be a post on his comments, but after a while I realized it would be obscene to post this, so I moved it here:

It seems every so often there is a show or a production that entices me to wonder what it was like to be in the house. When I talk to older theatregoers I always ask them about their first show and their favorite show (depending on the time we have). I’ve never been anything but fascinated by the responses I get. And I find I’m always saying, “Gosh, I would have loved seeing that!” So I made what I call my “Time Machine” list. Whenever there’s a new one I just add it to this mental list. It’s ever growing, because the more I read and the more I learn the more fascinated I become. There are countless shows that come to mind as something I would have liked seeing – and almost all of them are original casts.

Even now, I tend to have a preference for original stars. There have been a couple of times where I’ve let some shows pass me by because I wasn’t really interested in the new cast members. If original cast members return for the close, it usually sparks up on my radar again. Case in point: David Cromer in Our Town (which I saw last night, more on that later) and Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur in Hairspray (I went the day before the show closed). So if there’s a chance to see the originals, yeah I’m there. Are there productions where I would have preferred seeing the originals? Yes: Proof and The Producers. But here’s a short list of some of those shows that were on the boards before I was born that I would love to have seen:

Follies – Of the original Sondheim-Prince collaborations this is the one I’d want to see most, in fact I’d love it if City Opera were able to bring this production back to life in its repertory (they already have Prince’s Sweeney Todd, which along with Pacific Overtures has been preserved for posterity. I’ve watched those brief video highlights from the dress rehearsal which only makes me want to see it more. It is the sort of production that would be unthinkable today and fiscally impossible. It seems that Prince never expected to make money off of this show – and he didn’t. The show closed after 522 performances, losing its entire investment. But oh those costumes, the scenery and the staging. Michael Bennett’s “Who’s That Woman?” is considered by many to be the greatest production number. Ever. That original cast is well-remembered and likely never to be forgotten.

Gypsy – Merman. Lansbury. Daly. It’s one of the of best musicals of all time. Ethel Merman with Jerome Robbins’ original staging (and a smash like none other)? I’d probably be agreeing with Walter Kerr’s assessment that it’s “The best damned musical I’ve seen in years.” The part was tailor made to her talents. Criticisms from the creators be damned, it’s Ethel Merman in her last original role on Broadway belting it like no other and being challenged like she had never been before. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I like to think Lansbury was the best from the evidence I’ve seen – balls-to-the-wall, riveting and simultaneously gutteral and alluring. Daly is a superb actress and her cast album doesn’t give her performance its due. I’ve seen a bit on youtube, but I would love to have been in the St. James when she bent over and attacked the stage during “Rose’s Turn.”

Mame – Angela Lansbury is required viewing. SarahB and I would take the time machine all the way to Hotel Paradiso in 1957 to Prettybelle in Boston in 1971. But this is the one out of all of them I want to have been there for. Lansbury ir in her Tony winning, take the town by storm tour de force performance? That score, that staging and choreography – and all of New York falling at Lansbury’s gold lame pajama pants. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for Lansbury, and forever changed her career and her life (and is the first of her five Tony wins). The cast album remains a desert island selection, but boy I would have loved seeing her with my other favorite Bea Arthur.

My Fair Lady – Lerner and Loewe besting Rodgers and Hammerstein at their own formula? (Well, I suppose it’s debatable, but don’t tell my musical professors that). The musical adaptation of Pygmalion is one of my personal favorites – I played Freddy Eynsford-Hill in my high school production and am quite proud of what I did when I was 17 (and would love the chance to do it again). It’s a shimmering score – Lerner and Loewe’s true triumph. The book is Lerner’s best; none of the shows he wrote before or after ever had a book this strong (of course, he had Shaw to thank there). From the first strains of that overture to the finale, it’s an utter masterpiece. Add to the formula Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, Robert Coote & Stanley Holloway and I’m done.

She Loves Me – When asked my favorite musicals, I usually give three answers: The Light in the Piazza, Sweeney Todd and this charmer. I saw Piazza on its opening night and have seen various tapes of Sweeney over the years (and was there for its 2005 revival). But I have never had the chance to see this one. It’s original cast album is a sparkling jewel from start to finish. It’s my favorite Bock & Harnick show, with some of their best character numbers which perfectly complement Joe Masteroff’s lovely libretto. Start to finish, nothing but pure love. I listen to this cast album ever New Year and the finale gets me ever time. Barbara Cook’s “Ice Cream” will never be topped.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – One of these is not like the other. It’s of course obvious that I would place this one on my list. The show is a notorious flop with an absolute mess of a book but a stunner of a score. Patricia Routledge, a Tony winner for Darling of the Day (we’ll have already stopped there on the way), gets a mid-show standing ovation for “Duet for One.” I mean, how fascinating is that? She stirs up a bored crowd into a manic frenzy over nine minutes of stage time. Then Routledge leaves the stage until the finale and the audience, though titillated, is already sad to see her go.

South Pacific – If I had to choose one of the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, this would be the one. Yes, it’s my personal favorite of all of them and the revival is fresh in my memory. But can you imagine being there when it was a critical and cultural phenomenon? Four years since WWII ended, folks are still quite well aware of the battles of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, etc and there is still a lot of mourning and remembering. This show opens at the Majestic with that cast – still the only production in the history of the Tony Awards to sweep all four acting categories. Sure, I’ve seen Juanita Hall in the film and Mary Martin in the archival tape of the London production, but it doesn’t beat actually being there.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – I loved the 2005 revival, which I saw twice and of course have seen the Oscar-winning film adaptation. But it wasn’t until I got my hands on the original cast album (you read that right) that I realized what a stunning production the original was. Uta Hagen leads the charge as the definitive Martha; vulgar, hilarious and devastating. The show was revived in 1976 with Colleen Dewhurst, and since I’m a huge fan of hers, I would have like seeing her spin.

Some runners-up: Show Boat (1927), Coco, A Streetcar Named Desire (I’d take in the original with Tandy, national tour with Hagen, the 1973 revival with both Rosemary Harris and Lois Nettleton), Auntie Mame, Inherit the Wind, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Glass Menagerie, The Apple Tree, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, High Spirits, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Ballroom, Nine, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Call Me Madam, Candide, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Kismet, Allegro, Love Life, The West Side Waltz, Carnival, Illya Darling, A Chorus Line, The Music Man, Carnival in Flanders, 1776, A Little Night Music, Grand Hotel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Mary Mary, West Side Story, Bells Are Ringing, Fiddler on the Roof, and…