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Mark Shenton: My favourite musical flops

Phill Jupitus (Franz Liebkind,) Cory English (Max Bialystock) and Jason Manford (Leo Bloom)
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There are many different kinds of flops, but in the commercial theatre, at least, there’s only one true definition of what constitutes a flop: a show that, however good (or bad) the reviews, simply doesn’t repay its investment.

So, in those terms, Spider-man the Musical may have flown (above and around the heads of the audience) on Broadway for just over three years (including nearly seven months of previews), but it still closed at a massive deficit after setting the record for the most expensively produced show in Broadway history (at over $60 million) and so can be labelled the biggest flop in Broadway history, too.

That record was previously held by Carrie, the Broadway import of the Royal Shakespeare Company-originated musical based on the Stephen King novel, which cost some $8 million to put on in 1988 but lasted just five performances, leading it to be dubbed “the most expensive quick flop in Broadway history” by the New York Times.

I’ve been prompted to think of flops like these because of the return of The Producers, the stage version of Mel Brooks’ film about two theatre producers who hatch a plan to deliberately produce a flop that they’ve over-capitalised, and pocketing the difference when it inevitably fails (as they are sure it must)… except that it if it doesn’t, their fraud would be exposed. I reviewed it for The Stage at Bromley, and it remains an irresistible delight.

I have, in my time, had nearly as much pleasure from flop musicals as I’ve had from great ones, mainly from being able to say I was there! (And yes, I was there both at Stratford-upon-Avon and on Broadway for the original productions of Carrie). I’m equally upset to have missed the one-night only run of Mike Read’s notorious Oscar Wilde the Musical at the Shaw, but I was in New York at the time.

The blink-and-you’ll-miss-them Broadway (and West End) musicals have been a lot rarer in the last few years: as costs of putting musicals have escalated, the truly hopeless specimens seldom get as far these days as shows like In My Life, the late Joseph Brooks’ opus about a singer-songwriter with Tourette’s syndrome who falls in love with an obsessive-compulsive woman (I kid you not).

Ben Brantley, reviewing it for the New York Times in 2005, wrote:

I dreamed I went to a Broadway show that was supposed to be madly eccentric and surreal, featuring a giant lemon, transvestite angel and a hero with Tourette’s syndrome. But then, in one of those head-spinning shifts of setting that occur only in nightmares, I found myself trapped inside a musical Hallmark card, a pastel blend of the twinkly teddy bear and sentimental sunrise varieties. And suddenly, as the breath was leaving my body, I realised I was drowning, drowning in a singing sea of syrup. Hey, wait a minute. That was no nightmare. That was In My Life.

Shows like this are, sadly, increasingly rare nowadays, though every now and then one will slip beneath the radar and secure a theatrical booking. Such was the case not once but twice for composer John Robinson, who managed to get his musicals Behind the iron Mask and Too Close to the Sun to the West End’s Duchess and Pinter Theatres where they ran briefly in 2005 and 2009 respectively.

As Metro wrote of the latter: “Can you seriously imagine Ernest Hemingway singing an ode to the joy of writing? Me neither. That’s the insurmountable problem of this unfortunate work: the ludicrous juxtaposition of Hemingway°s violent, masculine world with the flamboyant excess of the musical… Robert Trippini’s woeful libretto and John Robinson’s lyrics are squirmingly snigger-inducing. You can only feel for the cast, compelled to sing through sledgehammer numbers such as Sentimental Small-Towner That I Am, and by scene two you’re desperate for Hemingway to use that gun he keeps waving around and put everyone out of their misery.”

But flops of this order are not confined to composers you’ve never heard of. More recently, none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber had one of the biggest flops of his career with Stephen Ward at the Aldwych, the misguidedness of which was only spared its spot on the front pages by the fact that the same night it opened the roof of the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue (that he had once coincidentally owned) partly fell down in December 2013.

One of the great things about flop musicals is that they inevitably produce great stories…. and great bad reviews, too. The 2004 salsa musical Murderous Instincts was turned by one of its stars Nichola McAuliffe into the basis of a terrific novel, and also received this priceless review from Paul Taylor in The Independent,

Written by Cinda Fox, heiress of the Firestone rubber company fortune and produced by her spouse, Manny, the show has been through more directors than Elizabeth Taylor has had husbands. One (Bob Carlton) was bawled out by Manny during the interval of a Norwich try-out. Another (Michael Rooney, son of Mickey) had his application for an emergency work-permit blocked after representations to the Home Office from British Equity. It gave a delicious new twist to the old gag about directors “phoning in a production” when, for a couple of weeks, Rooney actually tried to oversee the show from the other end of the line in Paris. Could Murderous Instincts possibly be as entertaining onstage as it has been off? Well, the answer is: at times, damn nearly. The show is daft as hell, camp as Carmen Miranda’s headdress, and tacky above and beyond the call of duty.

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