Richard O’Brien’s campy sendup of science fiction movie schlock debuted in a gritty, 60-seat British theater in 1973 and made its way across the ocean, opening at Broadway’s Belasco Theater in March 1975. The tenuous story of Brad and Janet, the all-American couple held hostage in the glittery and depraved clutches of a transvestite-cum-mad scientist from another planet, did not pass critical muster and said “hello” to oblivion after 45 performances. The musical fared far better in its motion picture incarnation, although that too was not initially a box office success when it premièred in September 1975. The film version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show grew into a worldwide cult phenomenon after the film’s distributors began screening the film at midnight. The movie remains in circulation as a late-night attraction, with audiences talking back to the film and employing props—such as squirt guns, rice and toast—at appropriate moments in the story. Audience participation has become so integral to the Rocky Horror experience that when the stage show was revived on Broadway in 2000, theatergoers were offered ready-made kits of things to throw. The revival fared much better, with a 437-performance run; however, Rocky Horror, along with other shows on the Great White Way, went on hiatus after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Although it reopened in October of that year, the Rocky revival couldn’t regain its footing and permanently shuttered in January 2002.
6. Bring Back Birdie (1981)
Sequels to musicals have always struggled: shows such as Let ’Em Eat Cake, George and Ira Gershwin’s continuation of their Pulitzer Prize-winning Of Thee I Sing; The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, which detailed the further adventures of madam Mona Stangley; and A Doll’s Life, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, all tanked. The same fate was in store for Bring Back Birdie, composer Charles Strouse’s attempt to follow up on his 1961 breakout success, Bye Bye Birdie, which garnered a Tony Award for best musical. The show picks up 20 years after agent-turned-English teacher Albert Petersen and fiancée Rosie Alvarez walked off into the sunset. The now happily married couple is offered a sum of $20,000 if they can locate Conrad Birdie, the teenage heartthrob and rock idol they managed in the original show, so he can make a special appearance at the Grammys. Lacking the charm of the original, Bring Back Birdie forewent the usual string of out-of-town tryouts, which most productions use to make tweaks and adjustments, and opened outright in New York. Although Chita Rivera, reprising her role as Rosie, nabbed a Tony nomination, Bring Back Birdie closed after four performances. Strouse later tried to write a sequel to his other major musical hit, Annie, with Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge, which closed during tryouts at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to The Phantom of the Opera—the longest-running musical of all time—received mixed reactions from critics and fans of the original show when it opened in London in March 2010. Revisions are expected before it opens in New York.
7. Into the Light (1986)
Offhand, science and archaeology don’t seem like musical theater material. And yet there is Into the Light, which was based on a 1978 scientific examination of the Shroud of Turin to determine if it could indeed be Jesus Christ’s burial cloth. The musical told the fictional story of physicist James Prescott whose obsessive work with the shroud alienates him from his son, who copes by way of an imaginary friend in the form of a prancing mime. Clerical kick lines or displays of smoke and lasers were hard pressed to hide the fact that subjects such as molecules and metaphysics are not best explored in song—especially with lyrics like “science without data will not get you from alpha to beta.” Short of divine intervention, nothing could save the show from closing after six performances.
8. Carrie (1988)
Stephen King’s Carrie, a horror story about a high-school girl with telekinetic powers and blood lust, was a best-selling novel and a popular 1976 film. It did not, however, make for an equally successful Broadway musical. Reconceived as a riff on Greek tragedies—with high-school girls in togas and red body stockings and boys in studded leather—the show was an almost entirely sung pop opera. There were inherent problems in staging a supernatural thriller: Carrie’s telekinetic powers were fatally downplayed, and in one scene where the character prepares for prom—the token moment where the audience sees her full prowess over inanimate objects—the display of brushes and powder puffs whizzing around the stage was inappropriately comic. “Puppetry has its uses,” theater critic David Richards wrote in his Washington Post review, “although advancing terror is not one of them.” Furthermore, Act II opened with a group of spiteful teenagers slaughtering pigs to use in an elaborate booby trap whereby an unwitting Carrie is to be drenched with a bucket of blood. Setting animal slaughter to music—“It’s a simple little gig / You help me kill a pig”—somehow seems grossly ill-advised. Opening on a Thursday, it closed that Sunday, playing five performances at an $8 million loss. The show’s reputation of being one of the most spectacular flops to grace the Broadway stage earned it a cult following, and the off-Broadway MCC Theater plans to mount a heavily revised version of Carrie—which omits the pig murder number—during the 2011-2012 season.
9. The Civil War (1999)
Civil War musicals have a troubled history, as seen by failed shows like My Darlin’ Aida, which transplanted Verdi’s Aida to the American South, and two adaptations of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Nevertheless, in 1999 composer Frank Wildhorn presented his take on the deadliest conflict ever to take place on U.S. soil. Told from the perspectives of the Union, Confederacy and Southern slaves, The Civil War was a musical revue without a plot that covered the span of the war by way of Top 40-style pop songs infused with rock, country and R&B. Although it was nominated for a Tony Award both for best score and best musical, The Civil War closed in June after playing 35 previews and 61 performances. While this show has yet to resurface on the Broadway stage, it has been reconceived, reworked and remounted elsewhere, such as a 2009 concert version produced at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
10. Taboo (2003)