08 July 2016

“Anatomy of a Broadway Flop”

by Michael Paulson

[The following article was published in section C (“The Arts”) of the New York Times of 23 June 2016.  “Anatomy of a Broadway Flop” is presented as a sort of theatrical post mortem of four big Broadway musicals that failed this season.  I know little about three of the shows in the article aside from the Times reviews, but I think that Michael Paulson, the acting theatrical ME, was probably gentler than I suspect the shows deserve.  If I didn’t know better, I’d come away from the article thinking, ‘Gee, they made a couple of little mistakes.  That’s hardly worthy of a death sentence.’  But I can attest at least in the case of Bright Star, the only one of the four plays covered here that I saw, that the creators and producers didn’t do much right from my perspective (see my report on 11 April—I didn’t pussyfoot!).  Bright Star almost certainly wouldn’t have even made it to a Broadway stage (or, probably, even the Kennedy Center) if the name Steve Martin hadn’t been attached.  (I doubt Edie Brickell carries that much weight.)  Bright Star shouldn’t have been in the lofty position it finagled for itself and couldn’t sustain its unearned prominence.  (It’s sort of the theater counterpart of the Peter Principle: the show rose to its level of artistic incompetence and failed.  I’m sorry for the artists who’ve lost their jobs—but theater, especially commercial theater, isn’t a jobs program.)

[American Psycho, with a book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik, began previews at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre under the direction of Rupert Goold on 24 March 2016, opened on 21 April, and closed  on 5 June.  The review-survey website Show-Score gave American Psycho an average rating of 62 based on notices that were 49% positive and 30% negative with 21% mixed.  American Psycho won Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Sound Design, Outstanding Lighting Design, and Outstanding Projection Design, plus five additional Drama Desk nominations and two Tony Award nominations (Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design).  The musical also received eight Outer Critics Circle Award nominations of which it won two (lighting and projection design) and two Drama League Award nominations.

[Bright Star has a book by Steve Martin, music by Martin and Edie Brickell, and lyrics by Brickell and began previews under the direction of Walter Bobbie at the Cort Theatre on 25 February and opened on 24 March; the show closed on 26 June.  Show-Score reported that Bright Star received 66% positive reviews, 18% negative, and 16% mixed, accumulating a score of 67.  Bright Star won one Theatre World award for Carmen Cusack’s performance and one Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music; the musical was nominated for six additional Drama Desks and five Tonys (Best Musical, Best Book, Best Original Score, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, and Best Orchestrations).  It also won two Outer Critics Circle Awards (Outstanding New Broadway Musical and Outstanding New Score) from seven nominations, and one Drama League Award (Cusack) from two nominations; it also received two Fred and Adele Astaire Award nominations.        

[Disaster! began previews at the Nederlander Theatre on 9 February, opened on 8 March, and closed on 8 May.  Directed by Jack Plotnick, Disaster! has a book by Plotnick and Seth Rudetsky based on a concept created by Seth Rudetsky and Drew Geraci using popular songs of the 1970s.  Show-Score gave Disaster! an average score of 65, with 67% of its reviews positive, 26% negative, and 7% mixed.  The jukebox musical was nominated for one Tony for Jennifer Simard’s featured performance and one Drama Desk Award for the featured performance of Baylee Littrell.

[Tuck Everlasting, with a book by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, music by Chris Miller, and lyrics by Nathan Tysen, started previews under Casey Nicholaw’s direction at the Broadhurst Theatre on 31 March, opening on 26 April and closing on 29 May.  Show-Score’s rating of 63 was based on an average of 45% positive notices, 24% negative, and 31% mixed.  Tuck received one Tony nomination, for the costume designs of Gregg Barnes, and won a Theatre World award for the performance of actress Sarah Charles Lewis.  There were also three nominations for Outer Critics Circle Awards, two Drama League Award nominations, and two Fred and Adele Astaire Award nods.]

Roger Bart in “Disaster!” (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)
The woeful wordplay writes itself. “American Psycho” met a gruesome end. “Tuck Everlasting” was not immortal. “Bright Star” ran out of fuel. And “Disaster!” proved to be — well, you can finish that one yourself.

Broadway is a brutal business, in which real success is enjoyed by a handful of shows, while a vast majority crash and burn. And this season was especially tough, because one show, “Hamilton,” gobbled up much of the attention, enthusiasm and awards that motivate potential ticket buyers.

For musicals that opened this spring, it was an especially unforgiving season. Broadway is increasingly saturated with long-running hits, and four musicals that opened last fall — “School of Rock,” “On Your Feet!,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Color Purple” — reached the new year still running strong.

“People don’t have to go to their ‘I don’t know, maybe I’ll like it’ show when there are so many ‘You’re going to love it’ shows to see,” said Jordan Roth, the president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns five of the 40 Broadway houses.

Ultimately, shows fail because not enough people buy tickets to see them. Maybe the title wasn’t as popular as the producers thought, the performers not as appealing, the stories not as dramatic, the songs not as memorable. And, in an era of high running costs, many producers can no longer afford to wait to let an audience build.

Four shows flopped this spring at a total loss to their investors. Here, based on interviews with a variety of Broadway figures, is an autopsy report of sorts for “American Psycho,” “Disaster!” and “Tuck Everlasting,” all of which closed in recent weeks, and “Bright Star,” which wraps up on Sunday.

Benjamin Walker in “American Psycho” (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

‘American Psycho’

The run 27 previews, then 54 performances after opening April 21 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater.

The story A hunky and status-obsessed investment banker who is (or at least appears to be) a sex-crazed serial killer in New York City in 1989.

Cost to produce $9.8 million

Onstage The title character, Patrick Bateman, was played by Benjamin Walker (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”); the cast also featured a reunion of the “Next to Normal” co-stars Jennifer Damiano and Alice Ripley.

Offstage An A-list creative team: music by the singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik (“Spring Awakening”), set design by Es Devlin and direction by Rupert Goold (“King Charles III”). The lead producer was Jeffrey Richards.

What were they thinking? The title is well known and has an established fan base through the polarizing 1991 novel by Bret Easton Ellis and the cult film adaptation in 2000. The musical seemed sexy and fearless, with a critique of the go-go ’80s that might resonate in this era of intense discussion about income inequality; an initial production, at the Almeida Theater in London from 2013-14, received some encouraging reviews. The show was scheduled then to go to Second Stage, an Off Broadway nonprofit, for further development, but the rights holder was so confident of the prospects that it forced the cancellation of that production and moved straight to Broadway.

Critical response Divided, but several of the most influential critics hated it. The show was nominated for two Tony Awards, for scenic and lighting design, and won neither.

Why it failed It was always going to be a risk. The blood-drenched material (at one performance, a misfiring blood pack splattered an audience member) was unsuitable for families and unappealing to tourists, who make up a large constituency of Broadway ticket buyers. But the show proved divisive even for adventurous theatergoers. Some raved about its bold look and daring content, but others suggested it underplayed the satire; many found the explicit and misogynistic violence offensive. Also noteworthy: British-developed shows satirizing the United States (see “Enron”) have recently tanked on Broadway.

Carmen Cusack in “Bright Star” (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)
‘Bright Star’

The run 30 previews, then 109 performances after opening March 24 at the Cort Theater.

The story Inspired by a news account of a baby found in a valise, the musical, set in North Carolina in the 1920s and the 1940s, tracks the intertwining stories of a young soldier and the editor of a Southern literary magazine.

Cost to produce $10.5 million

Onstage Instead of going with a well-known star, the show’s creative team chose Carmen Cusack, who had been with the project from the start; she got great reviews and was nominated for a Tony Award for her Broadway debut performance as the editor, Alice Murphy.

Offstage The comedian and musician Steve Martin and the singer-songwriter Edie Brickell collaborated on the score. The show was directed by Walter Bobbie (a Tony winner for “Chicago”), and the lead producer was Joey Parnes, who had shepherded “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” into an unlikely hit.

What were they thinking? The producers and creators were encouraged with what they saw at two pre-Broadway productions, a premiere at the Old Globe in San Diego in 2014, then a run in 2015 at the Kennedy Center in Washington; they believed that the cultural cachet of Mr. Martin and Ms. Brickell would attract audiences and that a combination of buzz and awards would broaden the appeal.

Critical response Mixed. Charles Isherwood of The New York Times praised the show as “gentle-spirited, not gaudy,” but Terry Teachout described it in The Wall Street Journal as “a really bad bluegrass-pop musical.” The show was nominated for five Tony Awards, including for best new musical, but won none.

Why it failed Although some were charmed, few were wowed, making it hard to build word of mouth. As an original musical, not adapted from a film or novel, and with a complex plot, it was hard to explain to ticket buyers. Some found the show’s denouement laughably predictable. The musical was nostalgic; it was often described as quiet, or small, which has worked for some recent musicals (“Once,” “Fun Home”), though not this year. As “Bright Star” struggled at the box office, Mr. Martin and Ms. Brickell, among others, lent the production more money to keep it running, and on about a dozen occasions Mr. Martin joined the band onstage for an instrumental entr’acte, but it was not enough to save the show.

A scene from “Disaster!” (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

The run 32 previews, then 72 performances after opening March 8 at the Nederlander Theater.

The story A spoof of 1970s disaster films (particularly “The Poseidon Adventure”), the show depicted the misadventures of the passengers and crew members on an ill-fated floating casino in New York City in 1979.

Cost to produce $6.5 million

Onstage Seth Rudetsky, a Broadway booster and a co-writer of the musical, starred as a disaster expert and enlisted several stage notables to ham it up alongside him, including Roger Bart (“The Producers”), Kerry Butler (“Xanadu”), Adam Pascal (“Rent”) and Faith Prince (“Guys and Dolls”).

Offstage The musical featured jukebox classics from the disco era and was directed by Jack Plotnick, who wrote the show with Mr. Rudetsky. The lead producer was Robert Ahrens.

What were they thinking? This show was an effort at counterprogramming — it had two successful Off Broadway runs, in 2012 and 2013-14, and the producers hoped that the enthusiasm for a campy night out could be replicated on Broadway.

Critical response Mr. Isherwood, writing in The Times, praised the show as a “delirious goof,” but other key critics were less impressed; in New York magazine, Jesse Green called it “a tiny entertainment that should probably have been left in a basement rec room.” Jennifer Simard’s uproarious performance as a nun with a gambling problem received the only Tony nomination; she did not hit the jackpot.

Why it failed The musical struck many as an extended, one-gag skit, without enough star power, spectacle or drama to justify Broadway prices (or a two-act running time), and it sank.

Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Sarah Charles Lewis in the musical 
“Tuck Everlasting.” (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

‘Tuck Everlasting’

The run 28 previews, then 39 performances after opening April 26 at the Broadhurst Theater.

The story A young girl who meets an immortal family in the woods of rural New Hampshire and must decide whether to drink from the water that would allow her to live forever.

Cost to produce $11 million

Onstage The Broadway veterans Terrence Mann (“Pippin”), Carolee Carmello (“Parade”), Michael Park (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) and Andrew Keenan-Bolger (“Newsies”), along with an 11-year-old newcomer, Sarah Charles Lewis.

Offstage A beloved children’s book, published in 1975 by Natalie Babbitt, was the key ingredient. Add in the hitmaker Casey Nicholaw as director and choreographer, changing pace from his go-for-the-guffaw spectacles — “Aladdin,” “The Book of Mormon” and “Something Rotten!” The musical’s initial book was by Claudia Shear, and then the producers added Tim Federle to help revise it for Broadway; Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen did the score. The lead producer was Beth Williams.

What were they thinking? An initial production in Atlanta was well-received; Mr. Nicholaw has a track record of commercial success; and family-friendly musicals often do well on Broadway.

Critical response Tepid, with a few exceptions. The show was nominated for one Tony, for costume design; it did not win.

Why it failed Without big stars, it had low advance sales, and some argued that its leafy logo was unhelpful. The story is a bit of a fairy tale — often hard to execute. Adults perceived it as a show for children, and family shows without the Disney imprimatur are hard to sell. “Tuck” was sweet and lovely, but those are not the adjectives a musical needed this season to be heard above the din.

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