In mentioning the original Broadway production of The Lion in Winter, which starred Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, and featured Christopher Walken, yet which only ran for 92 performances, inveterate reader Douglass Abramson made several thoughtful comments about the show and the idea of success on Broadway, including --
Actually, I've heard too many stories of great Broadway shows that bombed, only for hindsight or a good revival starting a critical re-evaluation of the original production to be surprised about a show closing early. How many people would believe that Chicago wasn't considered a success when the original show closed? I really didn't expect that footage of The Lion in Winter exists. Its just that the film is one of my all time favorites and that cast is so tantalizingly talented and different from what I'm used to.
One thing I wanted to correct for the sake of accuracy is that while the general perception does exist that the original production of Chicago was not thought to be a hit, that's perhaps largely do because the revival was such a massive cultural phenomenon, running over 7,000 performances, which brought about the Oscar-winning Best Picture. In truth, though, the original production of Chicago ran for almost 1,000 performances. (936, in fact.) That's close to 2-1/2 years. It was considered quite a big success. Nothing like the revival, of course, but it did wonderfully.
But that aside, all this got me thinking about hits and bombs on Broadway.
And oddly, I'm not aware of all that many great shows that flopped. Most definitely some, to be sure. (Candide is one of the most famous examples, though in fairness that has gotten re-written over the years, many times.) But the problem is that, unlike movies, we have no way of knowing if the production was all that great. We can read the play and see the cast, but that's it. (Peter Pan is the rare exception, with its TV airings.) Some bombs have cult followings, like Anyone Can Whistle, and great casts, and we're told in memory how great they were, or how great we suspect they seem, but we have no idea if it was really any good -- it may have been -- or just cult followers defending their love.
(Speaking of Peter Pan, that has an interesting "flop" history. The Mary Martin version of the show in 1954 didn't do all well, running only 152 performances. I've heard reports that it might have been planned as a limited run, because it had been pre-sold to NBC. But a lot of that has come more lately, so I'm not sure and am at least semi-skeptical. That's because another musical version of Peter Pan had opened only four years before, and ran for 321 performances, which certainly didn't help the later production. This 1950 production had a great cast of its own, as good if not arguable even better, hard as that might be to believe. But it starred Jean Arthur and...are you ready?...Boris Karloff, as Captain. Hook! And the limited score was had both music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein. It was originally planned as a full-blown musical, but subsequently turned into a play with music, and over a half hour of songs were cut. The full score has been discovered and recorded, and there even have been stage productions with it re-integrated, the first one being in 2005. That said, I've heard the original cast album that was released, and for my taste I found those songs just fair. Boris Karloff, though, has one of the best numbers, and is wonderful. Jean Arthur is terrific, too, but isn't given material I liked as much. Still, the show had a solid run, By the way, as a small, fun side note, the same actor -- Joe E. Marks -- played 'Captain Hook's first mate, Smee' -- in both the Jean Arthur and Mary Martin productions.)
Anyway, back more directly to the topic at hand, like the "Candide" example" above, some flop shows do get rewritten or restaged (both of which helped with the success of "Candide's" revival, too, where they gutted the theater and put up platforms like islands throughout the audiences), and improve the production, a luxury that movies don't have. Movies can re-edit a bit, but no rewriting, re-casting and re-visualizing the concept.
Mind you, I'm 100%, absolutely sure great plays have gotten lost. Some were ahead of their time. Some had the bad luck of opening amid other big hits. Some weren't financed well-enough to support a long run. Others were too serious to get the "theater party" advance sales that can sustain a tottering show. Or the odd realities of life got in the way. (My beloved "Pickwick" closed very early because its star, Harry Secombe, got -- of all things -- the mumps. And since the show was in profit from its long, successful pre-Broadway tour, producer David Merrick closed it after only 56 performances.)
Movies, as noted, can be shown again over the decades and give flops a later life -- consider, for perhaps the best example, The Wizard of Oz. Though after time, cultures and tastes change, and given that a film is locked in to what it was from the first, films risk falling into their own dustbin of oblivion. Plays, on the other hand, can (and often do) get rediscovered, re-staged, perhaps rewritten and performed all over through the years. Movies can, of course, be re-made, but that requires a massive investment, probably starting at $50 million, and it's the rare studio that will make that kind of a risk on something that had been a bomb, so it's generally hits that get remade. (Oddly, the sort of thing that isn't crying out for a remake.) But lost plays, the flops of an earlier age do get the chance for an afterlife. Not with those original casts, the ones we ache to have seen, but a life nonetheless.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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