Broadway Bombs
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 9/25/13

There’s no scarier stage mother than Broadway herself. With Medea-like abandon, she slaughters her just-born offspring. Granted, some of the little buggers merit premature dispatch. Looking back on Moose Murders and Carrie: The Musical, we have to ask: What were the producers thinking? This map pokes wicked fun at some of Broadway’s catastrophes—with an aside on Mel Brooks’s Producers, which so brilliantly satirized the conception, gestation and birth of a Broadway bomb.

Start reading >>

Moose Murders  (Arthur Bicknell | play | 1983)
to  The Producers  (Mel Brooks | musical | 2001)

The curdled crème de la crème of Broadway failures is the “one-nighter”—a show that closes after a single performance. It’s rare for a production to last just one night, but hardly unknown. The musical Glory Days had an inglorious one-night stand in 2008. The one-woman drama Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All—based on Allan Gurganus’s best-selling novel and starring Broadway vet Ellen Burstyn—was shockingly DOA in 2003. And in 1968 Here’s Where I Belong—a musical based on John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden—clearly belonged elsewhere. But topping the lists of plays deserving premature burial is Arthur Bicknell’s Moose Murders, which New York Times critic Frank Rich described as “comatose.”

Producers’ rationale for immediately shutting down a show is usually damage control: If advance ticket sales are weak and reviews are rotten, keeping the show open will only hemorrhage investors’ money. Even so, heavy losses occur—a reality turned topsy-turvy in Mel Brooks’s Broadway satire The Producers (original film, 1968; Broadway musical, 2001; film musical, 2005). Brooks’s unscrupulous protagonists hatch a plot for making money from a production intended to close instantly, but their scheme is thwarted when the show is—improbably—a smash.

The Producers  (Mel Brooks | musical | 2001)
to  Carrie: The Musical  (Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford | musical | 1988)

Played by Zero Mostel in the original 1968 film version of Mel Brooks’s Producers, Max Bialystock is a con artist who devises a Broadway show with a premise so preposterous—a musical tribute to Nazi Germany—that it is predestined to bomb. Bialystock and his partner-in-crime, accountant Leo Bloom (played by Gene Wilder), soak investors for much more money than they need to mount the production, planning to skip town the moment the show closes. The law of unintended consequences foils them: The uncomprehending audience finds the show hilarious, and its success spells the producers’ ruin.

But can a musical with a preposterous premise make it on Broadway in real life? Judging from the box office receipts of 2011’s Book of Mormon—a musical comedy about two missionaries in Uganda (huh?)—the answer is yes. Thing is, the show has to be good. Carrie: The Musical, an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about an unpopular high school girl who kills practically everyone at her senior prom (huh?), was not good. Tedious, not even unintentionally funny and with no scares to speak of, it closed after five performances. As one critic quipped, “I checked the producers’ names, looking for Zero Mostel’s.”

Moose Murders  (Arthur Bicknell | play | 1983)
to  Carrie: The Musical  (Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford | musical | 1988)

Some long-dead turkeys live on in legend. Decades after such a play’s demise, bloodthirsty theater queens still lick their lips when they hear its name. Arthur Bicknell’s “mystery farce” Moose Murders has that weird kind of cachet, as does Nick & Nora, the lavish but stultifying 1991 calamity that limped through just nine performances after opening. (Nick & Nora did have a lot of previews, however—nine weeks’ worth, a Broadway musical record that stood until 2011’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark surpassed it.)

And then, of course, there’s Carrie: The Musical, a fiasco estimated to have cost its investors an astounding $8 million—a blockbuster budget for 1988. Connoisseurs of Broadway bombs may wish to be transported back in time to catch one of Carrie’s scarce few performances (16 in previews, five after opening). That wish would be misguided. New York Times theater critic Frank Rich dismissed Carrie as “just a typical musical-theater botch.” Even the show’s pyrotechnics were apparently a yawn. As TV-news theater critic Stewart Klein put it, “I’ve seen better special effects from a box of Cracker Jack.”

Moose Murders  (Arthur Bicknell | play | 1983)
to  The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public  (Carol Hall | musical | 1994)

Three decades after being killed, Moose Murders is still memorialized as a monument to Broadway awfulness. Other flops, though, quickly disappear down the memory hole. Despite its subtitle’s injunction, the 1973 musical Rachael Lily Rosenbloom (And Don’t You Ever Forget It!) got forgot. And although its status as “Broadway’s first disco musical” ought to have made it memorable, 1979’s Got Tu Go Disco is now so obscure it doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia entry. Mamma mia!

And who—besides Wikipedia—remembers the 1994 musical The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, which closed after 16 performances? Its oblivion is doubtless due to its being the misbegotten progeny of the Broadway blockbuster The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1978). It’s interesting that—unlike many sequels of hit movies—sequels of successful Broadway shows always fizzle. Bring Back Birdie, a 1981 sequel to 1960’s Bye Bye Birdie, waved bye-bye after less than a week. And the prospects for straight-play sequels are equally dark: After seven performances of William Gibson’s Monday After the Miracle, a 1982 sequel to his Tony Award–winning 1959 triumph The Miracle Worker, the lights went out.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s  (Bob Merrill | musical | 1966)
to  The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public  (Carol Hall | musical | 1994)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s protagonist Holly Golightly is a call girl, but loose women don’t sink shows. Prostitution is a mainstay of musical theater. Irma la Douce, a musical about a French hooker, ran for a respectable year after opening on Broadway in 1960. So did the 1997 Broadway production of The Life (about Times Square streetwalkers). And one of Broadway’s all-time hits was 1978’s Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which kept the customers coming for nearly four years. That its sequel, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, quickly detumesced merely proves the rule.

No, what ruined Breakfast at Tiffany’s—the 1966 bomb yanked by legendary producer David Merrick after just four nights of previews—had nothing to do with sex. Neither did the show lack for star power, with Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain (then well-known for their TV roles) as the leads. The Bob Merrill score, though generic, was okay, and advance ticket sales were strong enough. What doomed Breakfast was its overlong, disjointed book. Called in to give Breakfast major 11th-hour surgery, writer Edward Albee instead delivered the fatal cut. As he later admitted, “I managed to turn it into a disaster.”

Breakfast at Tiffany’s  (Bob Merrill | musical | 1966)
to  Edward Albee  (b. 1928 | American playwright)

Edward Albee and Truman Capote (1924–1984) belong to the same generation of American writers, but it’s hard to imagine two men more temperamentally unlike. Where Capote was giggly, Albee is wry; where Capote was supercilious, Albee is grave. So it astonishes that Albee—best known for his savage marital drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (original Broadway production, 1962)—should have been selected to adapt Capote’s sweet-natured novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the stage. Granted, Albee was brought in only after the first writer, Abe Burrows—who’d had a hand in the 1961 hit How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying—was fired. But even so.

Albee’s career is cratered by Broadway bombs. Another adaptation—his book for the play Lolita, based on the Vladimir Nabokov novel—also did miserably, closing nine nights after its March 19, 1981, premiere. It takes two hands to count the shows Albee has been associated with (as writer, director or both) that have lasted less than a month—sometimes much less—on Broadway. But Broadway failure is not necessarily indicative of quality. Albee’s one-act absurdist play The Zoo Story is an acting-class standard, but its 1968 Broadway production laid an ostrich-size egg.

Carrie: The Musical  (Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford | musical | 1988)
to  The Capeman  (Paul Simon, Derek Walcott | musical | 1998)

Just because a play is crucified on Broadway doesn’t mean it won’t be resurrected. Carrie: The Musical was brought back to unnatural life in March 2012 and given a “fully reimagined” revival. It lasted only a month—but that was better than its first time around. Revivals have in some cases reversed former Broadway ignominy. In its original 1981 production, Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along was entombed after 16 performances, but the stone has long since been rolled away. In revised productions, Merrily enjoyed successful runs in New York (off Broadway), London and elsewhere, and it may soon reappear on Broadway.

A similar destiny may yet await singer-songwriter Paul Simon’s Capeman. Hotly anticipated when brought to Broadway in 1998, the $11 million, three-hour-long Capeman—book by poet Derek Walcott—proved fatally overweight, keeling over after 68 performances. But the Latin-inflected tunes Simon wrote for The Capeman were widely admired, leading the Brooklyn Academy of Music to present a music-only version, Songs from The Capeman, in 2008. In 2010 the Public Theater mounted a “work-in-progress” rendition of the show, slimmed down to 90 minutes, at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. If brought back to Broadway, this svelter Capeman might just fly.

The Capeman  (Paul Simon, Derek Walcott | musical | 1998)
to  Galt MacDermot  (b. 1928 | Canadian composer)

For Paul Simon’s hapless Capeman as for other, luckier contemporary-pop musicals, the road to Broadway was paved by the 1968 hit Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical (music by Galt MacDermot, book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni). Hair was and is a phenomenon: It ran for 1,750 performances in its original Broadway production, has been performed worldwide, was made into a 1979 movie (directed by Milos Forman) and has been revived on Broadway both unsuccessfully (1977) and successfully (2009).

But having one Broadway hit, or even two, doesn’t make you bombproof. Although MacDermot’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971) won the Tony for best musical, three of his subsequent Broadway ventures utterly flopped—two of them in the same year. MacDermot’s annus horribilis was 1972, which saw his Dude (The Highway Life), written with Hair collaborator Ragni, open on October 9 and close after 16 performances, and his space-age—and spacey—Via Galactica (book by Christopher Gore and Judith Ross, lyrics by Gore) open on November 28 and close after just seven. MacDermot’s 1984 musical The Human Comedy (book and lyrics by William Dumaresq) fared no better on the Great (and Cruel) White Way.