Book Review: Flop Musicals of the 21st Century

Was “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” a flop? Joe Allen didn’t think so, refusing to put its poster up on the famous flop wall of his restaurant, saying: “Any show that plays for three years on Broadway… is no failure in my book.”
But the musical is the first of ten Broadway shows that author Stephen Purdy writes about in Flop Musicals of the Twenty-First Century (Routledge, 107 pages.)
Purdy, who is on the musical theater faculty at Marymount Manhattan College, devotes his first and longest chapter (at 15 pages) to the musical based on a beloved Marvel comic book character, which broke all sorts of records, many but not all of them bad (the biggest money-loser but also the fastest show to be seen by a million theatergoers.) Purdy’s chapter on the show is among his weakest. He doesn’t tell us anything new about the much-publicized series of disturbing mishaps and misguided choices. There are many available accounts, much better told, including the well-written book Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History, written by Spider-Man co-librettist Glenn Berger (which Purdy uses as a resource in his chapter.)

But who would buy Purdy’s book if he had omitted this most publicized of Broadway catastrophes? That starts to get at the problem of this slim volume, which is less ambitious and much less useful than the book that obviously inspired It, Ken Mandelbaum’s 1991 book, Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops. In 372 pages (including an index) Mandelbaum described more than 200 shows. In 107 pages (without an index), Purdy describes 10.
Given that some 70 percent of all shows on Broadway do not make any profit – which is technically the definition of a flop — Purdy had a choice of hundreds of musicals from the last two decades. The ten he chose, he tells us in his introduction, represent a “hearty cross section” of the “litany of reasons’ that a show becomes a flop. These are not his top (or bottom) 10, in other words. Here are the shows (in the order in which he presents them after “Spider-Man..”), with my attempt at a summary of the reasons he offers for their lack of financial success:

“Lestat” (2006)  suffered the fate of  “anything vampire-ish” on Broadway. Purdy doesn’t much speculate as to why vampires do so much better in Hollywood than on Broadway, except to say that the live version is too much in danger of seeming campy.

“Urban Cowboy” (2003) suffered from too many songwriters (30) and too many stand-alone country songs that didn’t forward the story, but the musical was also a victim of bad timing – during a musician’s strike and the start of the Iraq War (when its TV commercials were pre-empted by continual news coverage)

In “The Pirate Queen” (2007), the rich costumes and heavy plot upstaged the thinly drawn characters, and the music was past its time, sounding too much like a “garbled echo” (in Ben Brantley’s phrase) of the 1980s power ballads in the creative team’s  previous  musicals, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon

“Rocky” (2014) is a popular movie franchise, but the demographics of Broadway – ticket buyers were overwhelmingly female — make a show about boxing a harder sell. In this chapter, Purdy doesn’t argue that the show was bad; quite the opposite. “So Rocky, and Saint Anthony pray for us now, we barely knew you before you were forced to hang up your gloves, which is too bad for us because your creators and designers made you into one hell of a good musical.” But he repeats the criticism that the boxing match at the end, in which the ring itself is extended over the orchestra seats, was a memorable highlight – that overshadowed what preceded it.

The ape puppet in “King Kong” (2018) was a visceral thrill, Purdy says, but a 20-foot-tall, 2,000-pound animatronic gorilla couldn’t carry the  whole show. The author also argues that theatergoers and theater critics were turned off by the producers wanting to make a buck with a musical about an ape being exploited for “greedy commercial purposes …The irony wasn’t lost on many. You could smell it all the way down Broadway and Ann Street in lower Manhattan where Barnum himself first suckered the crowds into paying to see his own brand of shenanigans.” This makes little sense to me – the ape in the show was a puppet, not a living, breathing beast (although it did at times seem that way); and what Broadway producer doesn’t want to make a buck?

Purdy rarely mentions the cast of any of the shows, much less assessing their performances. I suspect this may have at least something to do with his work as a  vocal and performance coach; he doesn’t wish to alienate any clients past or future. But this omission largely makes sense in the context of a book that purports to explain flops – because, in my experience, the performances are never the reason that a show fails; indeed, they are often the best thing about the production.

But in the case of “King Kong,”  his leaving out the fact that Christiani Pitts, an African American actress, was cast in the Fay Wray role, is a missed opportunity to explore one of the central inherent problems in the King Kong legacy, and the producers’ efforts to fix it.

“Escape to Margaritaville” (2018) was a pointless and mindless jukebox musical intended to showcase the music of Jimmy Buffett. The unanswered (and unasked) question that threads through this chapter – and, to a certain extent, the previous one on King Kong  –  is: why did the producers take it to Broadway? Purdy points out the show did well in the “party town” of New Orleans

“Glory Days” (2008) was a  musical that closed on its opening night – one of 22 such musicals in Broadway history, the author points out (typical of the brief but informative passages in the book that provide a larger context). The show, about a quartet of high school friends having a reunion their freshman year of college,  written by a team in their early 20s, had its debut at the Signature Theater of Arlington, Va.  The problem with the show, Purdy argues, is that it simply moved to Broadway before it was ready, for a variety of reasons that had to do with business and marketing, not art.

Why did “Bullets Over Broadway” (2014), a  “ hymn to a bygone glamorous American age,” based on a movie by Woody Allen, close after only four months? Purdy says that many compared it unfavorably to “The Producers,” the Mel Brooks musical based on his movie that had an original score and broad comedy. By contrast, “Bullets Over Broadway” used old 1920s melodies, and its humor was too low-key for the broad strokes of director Susan Stroman (who had also directed “The Producers.”)   It didn’t help that it won none of the Tony Awards for which it was nominated.

I think Purdy is being too kind here. Here’s the beginning of my 2014 review:

What would Woody Allen have thought of “Bullets Over Broadway” if he hadn’t written it? Would he have enjoyed this overbearing Broadway musical full of recycled, flat and vulgar jokes;  dazzling design; knock-em-over-the-head choreography set to mostly 90-year-old novelty tunes; and a cast of proven talent forced to mug their way to a paycheck?  My guess is: Allen would never have been caught dead inside the St. James Theater. Allen seems to have little affection for the stage. This is evident in the mean-spirited portraits of the Broadway characters in his new musical, based on his 1994 film.

Of “Dance Of The Vampires” (2002) Purdy writes “despite the colossal misfires and general ill-judgment, the real hell of it all was that the show was a sizable hit in Europe, and if the creatives had stuck to that version then perhaps this tale of musical theatre woe on Broadway wouldn’t need to be told. But they didn’t and it does if for no other reason than as a cautionary one that goes something like this: ‘don’t sell yourself out.’” The story he tells in this chapter has almost as many mishaps and misguided choices as “Spider-Man…” but is not as well-known.

The subtitle of “Flop Musicals of the Twenty-First Century” is  “How They Happened, When They Happened (And What We’ve Learned)” But I can’t say I learned much. There are some interesting tidbits, but it all feels fairly random, and the book is undermined by some exceptionally bad writing, especially in the first few chapters. The clunkers include sentences indecipherably convoluted, lots of lazy clichés, and an abundance of mixed metaphors (One of the shortest: “But the dark cloud over the show persisted like a galling migraine.” A longer one: “Like a sort of theatrical Moses, these guys and dolls seem to have the inside line to the man upstairs as to how to make a musical work, and when they miss it’s a real head-scratcher as to why the shipwreck.”) Some of the metaphors that aren’t mixed are worse: Talking about Spider-Man’s initial director Julie Taymor and composer Bono, Purdy writes “Perhaps at this point Bono was merely a surrogate who was fading away; she needed his seed for the songs but she, after all, was gestating the baby.”

Some readers might not mind the writing as much as I did, or perhaps not at all, if they find the information valuable enough. But I think I’ve figured out one big reason why so many theatergoers are so fascinated by flops. You would think that by definition most flops would not interest people. (Isn’t a lack of interest why they flopped?) But, as Ken Mandelbaum pointed out in his book, “the principal reason these shows flopped was that whatever their merits they received bad reviews from the critics.” And, lets face it, critics’ writing is often at its most dazzling in a bad review. It’s the reviews that made “Moose Murders” a legend. Purdy promises more flop books; I don’t think I’ll be reading them.


Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

1 thought on “Book Review: Flop Musicals of the 21st Century

  1. I so look forward to your email blog. I taught theatre at the high school and college levels for 30 years and often used stories I read from you to spice up my lectures. I am retired now but still enjoy reading your commentary. Thank you.

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