Over dinner last week, a friend asked: “How do so many bad musicals get produced?”. We had been talking about the UK’s lamentable performance at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, which led to me telling him about Which Witch, a Norwegian musical by Benedicte Adrian and Ingrid Bjornov. In 1992, the show received its British premiere at the West End’s Piccadilly Theatre with Adrian as the lead and Bjornov conducting.
Its producers believed the big selling point was that it starred Jahn Teigen, a Norwegian singer in the role of the Executioner. He was most famous for scoring ‘nil points’ as Norway’s 1978 Eurovision Song Contest entrant. So sure were its producers that this piece of casting would send the box office into a frenzy of Eurovision fans, that they even released an advance opening single of Teigen performing his big second act anthem, The Executioner, which contained the lyrics: “Who do you want to burn, who do you want to set on fire, you can leave all to me.”
To this day, I cannot tell you if Which Witch was intended as a serious musical about faith and witchcraft or a complete send-up. Certainly, its prior success in Norway would suggest the former. T the hatchet job by English lyric adaptor Kit Hesketh-Harvey, one half of the popular comedy duo Kit and the Widow, might suggest the latter.
“It sounds dreadful,” exclaimed my friend and indeed it was, yet the show took on a strange cult status. Musicals are the only live art form in which legendary failures can become as fabled as hits, affording those who saw it a badge of honour. But with any such work it’s worth considering that there was a group of people somewhere who thought putting this on stage was a good idea.
For a musical to become a legendary flop – such as Carrie, which I have written about previously – it can go in one of two ways. Either it suffers a series of unfortunate circumstances that thwart its success, though it still maintains an artistic credibility which may allow for its rediscovery and revival in the future. More commonly, however, there are a whole series of memorable moments that move it from a mediocre musical to a notorious failure. In Which Witch, these came thick and fast including the wonderful British musical actor Gay Soper being dunked in a well, for which I hope she was duly compensated (or at least offered a towel).
But how does a musical so bad even get produced? Hindsight is a wonderful thing. When a show crashes and burns people are quick to say they don’t understand how anyone thought it would be a good idea. Yet, many of the most successful original hit musicals over the past four decades have come from what may seem the craziest ideas. These include: cats, trains, the Vietnam War, an Argentinian dictator, chess players and a 262-year-old American politician. This diverse subject matter reflects how musicals consistently walk a thin line between the brilliant and the ridiculous.
A long-running hit show usually achieves creates a brand stronger than any star casting. It is what every commercial producer dreams of. Despite what may appear a madcap idea, successful musicals follow a trusted structure that allows them to morph into their own creations.
Previously, I wrote about how Hamilton’s success owes more to the legacy of past musicals than it does to revolutionising the art form, something it is often given credit for. Last week, David Benedict also highlighted how the book is critical to any successful musical.
Joe Allen’s restaurant in New York only displays posters of Broadway flops. But the roadkill hanging there does not deter producers dining in their shadows as they search for their next hit. What these posters serve to remind diners – especially if they are studying or working in the theatre – is that you can learn as much from a flop as a hit. But also how producing has changed.
If you look at the early posters on the restaurant’s walls, you may often see just one or two named producers, while posters from recent decades often have multiple names credited as producers. Many high-rolling investors today want producer billing and spread risk across more shows to better their odds of finding a hit.
An old producing expression goes: “How do you become a millionaire theatre producer? Start as a multimillionaire.” Among this year’s best musical Tony Award nominees, Beetlejuice lists 35 producers and Tootsie 64. This is representative of the escalating costs involved in producing commercial musicals on Broadway, but it also means many more producers are at the table.
In these situations, money talks, especially if a producer is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into a show. It means there are many more voices, all with strong views on if or why a show is not working and how it should be fixed. If this process is not well-managed, it can cause confusion, division and disagreements that at worse could even escalate failure.
In recent years, composer Frank Wildhorn has had a litany of flops on Broadway but some of those shows have translated into hits across Europe and Asia. The resulting royalties for the producers who originated the musicals in New York have made the Broadway flop become a potential winner in long-term overseas licensing. It shows that sometimes Leo Bloom was right in Mel Brooks’ The Producers when he said: “You could make more money from producing a flop than a hit”.