That Frank! The Shadow of Flop Musicals

This weekend I was lucky enough to see the London premiere of Frank Wildhorn’s 2009 musical Bonnie & Clyde in an inventive production by the musical theatre students at Arts Ed – one of London’s top drama schools. Despite holding amateur rights, the production was as professional as many fringe musicals, thanks in the main to the efficient and clever staging by Shaun Kerrison and Bill Deamer.

Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes as Bonnie and Clyde on Broadway.

Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes as Bonnie and Clyde on Broadway.

After famously flopping on Broadway after only 36 performances back in the 2011/12 season, there has recently been talk of Wildhorn and lyricist Don Black’s musical finding new life in London. A commercial West End run seems highly unlikely, given the money lost from the Broadway run, but as the Arts Ed production certainly proved it is a score that holds much potential and is, in my mind, Wildhorn’s most interesting and promising.

After the show I turned to my ever expanding cast recording collection (who knew the Man in the Chair could be in his mid 20s…) and rifled through my Wildhorn section to try and rediscover more of his work, and to see which were yet to have a life in London. Flicking through I quickly realised that all of his shows are yet to be performed in the West End, a fact that strangely took me by surprise.

Every musical theatre fan in the UK knows of his work mainly from performing Jekyll and Hyde at school or university – a right of passage for any performer, second only to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Whilst the show is a popular choice for amateur dramatic companies, it is still yet to have a commercial run in the West End. Numerous UK tours of the show have taken in regional venues, often with impressive casts featuring Louise Dearman, Shona Lindsay and Paul Nicholas. More recently the title roles have been taken by housewives’ favourite Marti Pellow – ensuring bums on seats even in some of the more remote parts of the country. How many, if any, of the audience came out discussing Wildhorn as a musical theatre writer or were aware of his other shows?

Janet Dacal and company in Wonderland. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Janet Dacal and company in Wonderland on Broadway.
(Photo: Sara Krulwich)

On Broadway, mention Wildhorn and you’re likely to raise an eyebrow, if not a smile. Despite his wide ranging career and truly bankable titles with shows based on sources ranging from Dracula to Alice in Wonderland, his work is more often than not looked down on. But for what reason? After the original production of Bonnie & Clyde closed prematurely, despite high praise for the central performances, many suggested the writer was being judged not on his current work but on his back catalogue of ‘flops’. Critics seem to enjoying ‘slamming’ his work, and his show Wonderland (2011) suffered a similar fate, closing after just 33 performances.

The purpose of this article is not to Wildhorn-bash (those who enjoy that particular sport should be referred to the various pages of the BroadwayWorld message boards) but to consider the question of flop musicals, and how as a new writer you have to learn to pick yourself up and treat every project as a learning curve.

The fantastic book Not Since Carrie by Ken Mandelbaum is the perfect exploration of the history of flop musicals on Broadway. One of the most remarkable things to take from it is the historical notion that everyone, be it composer, writer, director or performer has had brush with failure in some respect. Theatre history is full of countless examples of composers who have a back catalogue of failed musicals to their name, but many of these have managed to shake off the failure and be seen as a credible musical theatre writer.

Jenna Russell, Damian Humbley and Mark Umbers in Merrily We Roll Along.

Jenna Russell, Damian Humbley and Mark Umbers in Merrily We Roll Along.

The career of Stephen Sondheim is a perfect example of how early failure can go full circle, and a flop show can, in time, become a landmark piece of musical theatre. The best example probably comes in the form of Merrily We Roll Along which only managed 16 performance at the Alvin Theatre. A recent West End revival, which began life at the Menier Chocolate Factory, last year went on to become a spectacular hit gaining more five star reviews than any other show in the history of the West End. Granted, Maria Friedman’s careful and intelligent production ironed out many of the original flaws (gone were the t-shirts and the school gymnasium), but the core content of book and score remained in place. This is a prime example of a flop musical enjoying a second life in a new context, which surely means ‘That Frank’ may find his audience later in life?

How is failure judged? For a show to be technically considered a “flop” usually means it failed to recoup its initial investment – which would mean shows such as Follies and the original production of West Side Story could technically bear that title. Artistic flops are harder to gauge – many shows that are panned by critics go on to be the most successful shows in history, such as We Will Rock You (11 years at the Dominion Theatre in London), or even Les Miserables which was famously given the critical cold shoulder on its first airing at the Barbican.

Many may see awards as another indication of greatness – but there are few in the industry who are not slightly cynical about what it means to win a Tony or Drama Desk for Best Musical, Best Score or Best Book. Wildhorn is not alone with an empty Tony shelf. One of the giants of musical theatre Stephen Schwartz is also famously without a personal Tony Award, despite the success of musicals such as Godspell, Wicked and Pippin. He has won 3 Grammy Awards and 3 Oscars for his song-writing, and has been nominated for 6 six Tony Awards – winning none. Do awards bring commercial glory or does commercial glory bring awards? The age old question.

Perhaps the best way to judge a true ‘flop’ is by a mixture of the above. West Side Story is frequently considered to be one of the greatest musicals of all time, and despite never seeming to make a penny, Follies is the often quoted favourite by many Sondheim fans. The theatre industry is all about resilience and being able to take the rough with the smooth. No matter what your discipline it’s a well known fact that rejection and failure are all part and parcel of showbusiness, and you are judged by your ability to turn a negative experience into a positive one.

It is also fair to say that many composers find themselves on an unsteady path throughout their whole career, and despite having a string of hits behind them, they may never reach the same level of artistic or commercial achievement as they may have previously done. It’s a trajectory that feels unnatural. As humans we are almost wired to continue to progress, learn from each experience and get better. All of us will have friends who work in more ‘stable’ careers, where they start at the bottom of a long ladder, which they only continue to climb until they retire, but this is not an industry where this is possible. A career in theatre is more like a game of snakes and ladders, and thankfully it is a game that everyone seems to be playing. Andrew Lloyd Webber is arguably the most famous musical theatre writer in the world, and yet his career has had more ups and down than Space Mountain, which recent flop musicals such as Love Never Dies (2009) and his latest Stephen Ward (2013) certainly prove.

In the case of Wildhorn, he is a composer that is constantly working. His vigilance and dedication to the genre are to be commended, and I fully believe his work has a place, perhaps not on commercial Broadway, but within the theatre community. He is an inspiration for composers who may feel life is against them – not necessarily because of his music, but for the fact he continues to work and write new musicals despite the criticism.

No one can really tell exactly what makes a show flop, in the same way no one can honestly predict a hit. Both the West End and Broadway have proven time and again how volatile the industry can be, and it is this unsteadiness that keeps it alive. For those shows that don’t make it, there are thankfully many companies who believe that they deserve a second chance. In the US, the City Center Encores! series ensures that lost treasures are given a second look, and in many cases they have gone on to new productions based on a contemporary audience’s reaction to the work, that is often quite different to original reactions. In London, the Lost Musicals company also unearth hidden gems that were not perhaps appreciated in their time, or have become museum pieces for only the most vigilant cast album collector.

It was certainly refreshing to see students pull off an effective production of Bonnie & Clyde and it gave me faith in both Wildhorn’s work and the ability for a creative team to reinvent or reconstruct a musical out of something that maybe wasn’t perfect the first time around.

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