What makes a theatrical flop, and why give one a new lease of life?

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

No theatrical producer - with the entirely fictitious exception of Bialystock and Bloom in The Producers - sets out to deliberately make a flop show; but the road to Broadway (or West End) glory is paved with good intentions to do otherwise in which dreams too often turn to dust.

Judy Kuhn, whose early Broadway career was defined by two fast Broadway 'flops' in Rags (which ran for 4 performances after opening in 1986, following 18 previews) and Chess (which ran for 68 performances after opening in 1988, following 17 previews), attempted a more nuanced, long-distance understanding of their legacy when I recently interviewed her here: "Maybe Chess and Rags closed fast - and Rags closed very fast! - but I wouldn't say they were failures. It depends on how you define the word. They have been commercial failures but they were not artistic failures - people still do them, and love the music."

As it happens, I've just seen Rags revived at Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre last month (read more about that here), and songs from Chess will feature in this weekend's Best of... Rock Musicals concerts at Hammersmith's Eventim Apollo.

Myths attach to flops as well as hits - and sometimes make people even more curious to see them in the flesh. In the last few years, London has seen new productions of shows like Carrie (possibly Broadway's most notorious flop which originated with the RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon before transferring to Broadway in 1988, at least until Spiderman - Turn off the Dark claimed its crown to be the most expensive failure ever produced), Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn's Jeeves (which ran for just 38 performances in its 1975 West End premiere) and Moby Dick (which Cameron Mackintosh brought to the Piccadilly Theatre for a short-lived run in 1992).

Though each have some compensating pleasures, their new productions have only exposed their fundamental flaws - and they've each been returned to the curiosity box from whence they came.

But new UK productions of three more fast Broadway flops are attempting to disprove this. Michel Legrand, the veteran French film and theatre composer who passed away at the end of January, scored Amour that opened on Broadway in 2002; it had received the 1997 Prix Moliere for Best Musical in its original Paris run, but quickly failed on Broadway, running a mere 17 performances.

Tonight a brand-new production opens at London's Charing Cross Theatre; as Jeremy Sams, who penned the English adaptation (and wrote additional songs with Legrand), says in a programme note about its original New York failure, "It wasn't, after all, a Broadway show (despite being nominated for five Tony Awards). What it is, is what you will see tonight. A chamber piece for actors and musicians. Modest in scope, but huge in heart."

So it lives on. And so, too, does Amelie, another Francophile musical that opened on Broadway in 2017 and ran for 56 performances. It received its British premiere at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury last month (where it runs to 18th May), before embarking on a UK-wide tour which includes a week at London's New Wimbledon Theatre from 22nd - 25th May.

Also on the cards soon: The Bridges of Madison County, Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman's musical adaptation of a novel by Robert James Waller that is best known for a previous film version, ran for just 100 performances on Broadway in 2014. But it has just been announced that it will receive its British premiere at London's Menier Chocolate Factory in July, newly directed by Trevor Nunn who also worked such wonders with Fiddler on the Roof, now in the West End.  The score contains what is probably my favourite Jason Robert Brown song, "It All Fades Away" (sung here by its original Broadway star Steven Pasquale).

Instead of fading away, I hope that these show each find a renewed life. And though I saw the original Broadway productions in each of these cases, I cannot wait to see them again.

Originally published on

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