In Mel Brooks’ The Producers, washed-up theater producer Max Bialystock and wishy-washy accountant Leo Bloom figure they can get rich quick with a Broadway flop if they raise more money than they need to stage the show. (Their plan ultimately backfires and the pair end up in prison for fraud.) In real life, the creative minds that conspire to put on a show aim for greatness, but in the highly competitive New York theater scene, more shows bomb than succeed. Some of these failed productions have managed to attain a degree of fame—or infamy. Here are ten musicals that were spectacular flops in their Broadway debuts.
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1. Pipe Dream (1955)
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein ushered in the era of the modern Broadway musical with Oklahoma! in 1943 and followed up their success with shows such as Carousel, The Sound of Music and the Pulitzer Prize-winning South Pacific. But even these legendary figures were not immune to creating a flop. Pipe Dream started off as an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row; however, when that novel proved difficult to turn into a stage show, the author penned a sequel, Sweet Thursday, hoping it might prove more suitable for a musical. But the songwriting duo tried to shoehorn Steinbeck’s cast of affable bums and prostitutes into a more traditional Rodgers and Hammerstein mold. It didn’t work. “It is so warm-hearted about a cold world,” Louis Kronenberger wrote in Time magazine, “so high-minded about its lowlifes as to emerge mere hootch-coated butterscotch.” A Tony nomination for best musical still couldn’t save the show from shuttering after 246 performances—the shortest run of any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and their only show to lose money and not go on tour. Never revived on Broadway, some of Pipe Dream’s songs were transplanted into the 1996 staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, which ran for 110 performances. A year after Pipe Dream, another major musical theater composer had similar rotten luck: Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, adapted from Voltaire’s satiric novella, lasted only 73 performances in its original run. However, that flop had the rare distinction of going on to become a hit. When revived in 1973, Candide ran for 740 performances. It has since entered the repertory of opera companies, standing as one of the great achievements of American theater.
2. Kelly (1965)
In 1965, theatergoers had the opportunity to see now classic musicals such as Fiddler on the Roof, Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly! on Broadway. But only a handful had the opportunity to see Kelly. Offhand, Steve Brodie, the man who in the 1880s claimed to have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, seems an unlikely basis for a musical. And yet the creative team of Eddie Lawrence and Mose Charlap devised a story about a daredevil busboy named Hop Kelly who runs afoul of a group of Bowery gamblers that try to prevent him from surviving a jump from the Brooklyn Bridge so they can win a bet—but of course a resourceful Kelly ultimately succeeds. Lawrence had never written a musical, and the team of producers handling Kelly had never produced a Broadway musical, critical factors that did not work in the production’s favor. Even script revisions by Mel Brooks—among a bevy of other writers—prior to the New York opening could not save the show. Song titles are now tragicomic in their irony: “Everyone Here Loves Kelly” and “I’ll Never Go There Anymore.” In the end, nobody loved Kelly. It ran one performance, the night of February 6 at the Broadhurst Theater, and closed at a $650,000 loss amid universal critical pans. The sets were buried in the muck of a New Jersey dump a few days later.
3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1966)
There has yet to be a successful musical adaptation of a Truman Capote work: House of Flowers ran for 165 performances, The Grass Harp ran for seven. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, one of the most anticipated productions of the 1966-1967 theater season, didn’t survive previews. The source material itself was problematic for a successful adaptation: Capote’s 1958 novella about enigmatic society girl Holly Golightly was a mood piece without a linear plot. Furthermore, the story had already been morphed into an Oscar-winning film featuring Audrey Hepburn and the hit song “Moon River,” so audiences already had an idea of how the story should play and sound. However, in crafting the musical’s heroine, writers ditched the disarmingly charming Holly of the film in favor a harsher characterization that was truer to the brazen call girl in Capote’s book. Tryouts on the road didn’t fare well with audiences, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf playwright Edward Albee was brought in to completely rewrite the story just before the show reached Broadway. Nevertheless, by the time Tiffany’s limped into the Majestic Theater for previews, audiences were appalled to see leading lady Mary Tyler Moore—better known to all as the sweet-natured Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show—play a foul-mouthed tramp. The show played four previews before closing at a total financial loss. A 2009 musicalization of Breakfast at Tiffany’s that ran in London’s West End fared somewhat better and ran some 140 performances.
4. Via Galactica (1972)
In the late 1960s, Broadway embraced youth culture with rock musicals such as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. And then there’s the short-lived science fiction spectacle Via Galactica. The musical set some 1,000 years in the future was technically ambitious with its laser beams, flying spaceships and trampolines embedded in the stage floor to simulate weightlessness in outer space. Its plot, however, was so incomprehensible that synopses were inserted into the Playbills to assist befuddled theatergoers. Featuring country and gospel-infused music by Galt McDermott, the composer who helped to successfully bring ’60s counterculture to the Broadway stage with Hair a few years before, the show closed after a mere seven performances.
5. The Rocky Horror Show (1975)