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Howard Sherman: If only every Broadway show had the backing of ill-fated Head Over Heels

A scene from Head over Heels. Photo: Joan Marcus A scene from Head over Heels. Photo: Joan Marcus
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When word came, following the long US holiday weekend, that the Broadway musical Head Over Heels would be closing, it couldn’t have been much of a surprise to anyone. Playing since July, its perpetually fading financial fortunes were laid bare for all to see with each weekly revenue report.

The highest grossing week for Head Over Heels came during its first full week of previews, which reached $348,117. It would only exceed $300,000 twice in the 21 weeks that followed, generating only $208,221 last week, which proved to be Broadway’s highest grossing Thanksgiving holiday period on record. By any rational analysis – given the costs of running a Broadway musical, the writing has been on the wall for some time.

Most of the major reviews hadn’t been kind to the show – a mash-up of Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and the song catalogue of 80s girl group the Go-Go’s. It was not without its supporters such as David Cote in the Village Voice, Adam Feldman in Time Out, and Sara Holdren in New York magazine. But even with an ongoing television advertising campaign, nothing seemed to reverse the show’s fortunes.

It would be easy to look at the business of the show on the surface and ask what took the producers the so long. That is to say, why didn’t it close in September and cut its losses? But while many Broadway shows rely on wealthy individuals for their initial capitalisation, which in this case was $14.5 million, the team behind Head Over Heels was particularly well endowed and included some celebrity power to boot – most notably Gwyneth Paltrow.

For all of the show’s travails, there’s something to admire in the perseverance of the producers. They did not cut and run when things looked dire and gave it every chance to find an audience. While it won’t necessarily add much to the coffers, the show could find future life in college theatres, since the characters are young and diverse and its spirit decidedly inclusive. There’s a cast recording as well, which is essential for keeping new musicals in the game.

Head Over Heels struggled from its inception. It debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, but major changes were subsequently introduced. Michael Mayer took over from original director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. Spencer Liff succeeded Sonya Tayeh as choreographer and Jeff Whitty’s original book was “adapted” by James Magruder, seemingly a polite term for rewritten.

It is far from the first show in the history of Broadway to be radically reworked, but that doesn’t seem to have paid off. That leaves those of us who didn’t make it to Oregon three years ago to wonder what the original version – which laid the foundation for the journey to Broadway – looked like.

While announcing the closure, the requisite statements about a potential tour and licensed productions were made. Yet, recoupment seems highly unlikely, since the losses during the show’s run only increased the expenditure, above and beyond the original investment. But we may well be talking about producers for whom a stray million or two may not matter. Would that every show had such backing.

This week in US theatre

With hits dating back to the 1960s and a mid-career turn as a movie star, the life of Cherilyn Sarkisian practically cried out for dramatisation, and with The Cher Show, opening Monday, we now have a full-scale Broadway musical dedicated to the ageless diva. Rick Elice crafted the book around her multi-decade song catalogue, deploying the same three-actresses-share-one-role device also on display in the current Donna Summer musical. Jason Moore directs.

Ivo van Hove’s production of Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network opens on Broadway this Thursday, with Bryan Cranston again taking on the role of Howard Beale that he played to acclaim at the National Theatre. Much of the rest of the cast is new, including Scandal’s Tony Goldwyn and Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, but the onstage restaurant remains, albeit with a new head chef.

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