7 Shows You Didn't Know Were Successful the Second Time Around

News   7 Shows You Didn't Know Were Successful the Second Time Around
 
Chicago's been running forever, hasn't it? And Rocky Horror was always a cult hit, right? Not so fast. Playbill.com looks back at musicals long considered successes which were surprisingly unsuccessful their first time around. 

Scott Merrill and Jo Sullivan in <i>Threepenny Opera.</i>
Scott Merrill and Jo Sullivan in Threepenny Opera.

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The Broadway rule seems to be, if at first you don't succeed, try again — at least once. Sometimes it's not the show's fault that it doesn't run. Maybe it was miscast, or misdirected or under-advertised. Or it opened at the wrong time of year, with unusually strong competition. Maybe it was just ahead of its time.

History has many examples of shows that were panned the first time around, but went on to success or even classic status. Look at the operas La Traviata and The Barber of Seville. Both were savaged in their day and are now counted as classics, part of the foundation of the operatic repertoire.

Playbill offers a look back at a selection of stage shows that did better the second time around.

Threepenny Opera Composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht were stars of the Berlin cabaret scene in the 1920s. Their German adaptation of John Gay's English play The Beggar's Opera struck a chord in Weimar Germany with its portrait of a society that was hopelessly corrupt from top to bottom. It played more than 400 performances there, starting in 1928. But when it opened on Broadway in 1933 in the darkest days of the Great Depression, audiences didn't quite know what to make of this pitch-black musical comedy (translated by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky) and its jarring dissonant harmonies. It closed after just 12 Broadway performances and appeared to be forgotten. But after World War II, Mark Blitzstein's new 1952 translation found an audience in anti-establishment beatnik-era Greenwich Village, where it occupied the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theatre) for 2,611 performances, becoming the longest-running Off-Broadway show until overtaken by The Fantasticks some years later.

Strike up the Band

When George S. Kaufman famously defined satire as something that “closes on Saturday night,” he was talking about the original 1927 production of this musical that poked fun at the stupidity of war, something the authors expected to resonate with the generation that had gone through World War I. Yeah, not so much, as it turned out. This Gilbert & Sullivan-inspired show, which depicted the United States being coaxed into war against Switzerland through the sinister machinations of a U.S. cheese tycoon, was so badly received it closed out of town in Philadelphia, despite an original score by no less than George and Ira Gershwin. But librettist Morrie Ryskind retooled the script and tried again 1930, this time making it to Broadway where the show managed a not-bad-for-the-Depression 191 performances. The show may not have set Broadway on fire, but many of the songs sure did. "The Man I Love," "Soon," "I've Got a Crush on You" and the title song become standards, some resurfacing in more recent hits like My One and Only.

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She Loves Me

Set in a Hungarian parfumerie, this romantic little musical tells the cute story of two co-workers who detest each other, preferring the company of their secret pen-pals. Spoiler: It turns out they ARE each other’s pen pals, though they don’t find this out until the end. The original 1963 production starred Barbara Cook, Daniel Massey and Jack Cassidy and ran 301 performances. It was considered a disappointment for songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the team whose Fiorello! had previously won a Tony and Pulitzer, and who would next write Fiddler on the Roof. Devoted fans of the sterling original cast album (including Cook standard "Ice Cream”) helped get the show a 1993 Broadway revival starring Boyd Gaines and Judy Kuhn and Sally Mayes that ran 354 performances. But the show’s true fans are still waiting for the blockbuster revival that will validate their love. Perhaps they will finally get it in 2016 in the just-announced production that will star Laura Benanti, Josh Radnor and Jane Krakowski, and will open at Studio 54 March 3, 2016.

The cast of the 1993 revival of <i>She Loves Me</i>.
The cast of the 1993 revival of She Loves Me. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Chicago

You can't really say that the original 1976 production of Bob Fosse's deeply cynical Chicago was any kind of a failure. It received a pile of Tony nominations and ran a very respectable 936 performances, despite competition from the super-hit A Chorus Line, which monopolized the 1976 awards. But Fosse's fans had expected a bit more from such a glittering show. Audiences seemed much more in tune with the stripped-down 1996 Walter Bobbie revival, which started as part of the City Center Encores! series, and then transferred to Broadway. That revival is still running today at 7,749 performances and counting, having long since overtaken A Chorus Line to become the longest-running American-made musical in Broadway history. Fosse would have loved that.

Oh! Calcutta!

Similarly, the nudie revue Oh! Calcutta!, which enjoyed a respectable 1,316-performance run from 1969 to 1972, returned to Broadway in 1976 for a further 5,959 performances through 1989 at the old Edison Theatre (now the Supper Club nightclub), dispensing, songs, short playlets and bare skin in a run that still stands as the seventh-longest run in Broadway history. One of the show's skits, Four in Hand, also still stands as Beatle John Lennon's only playwriting credit for Broadway.

The <i> The Rocky Horror Show</i> revival set
The The Rocky Horror Show revival set

The Rocky Horror Show

This musical had a different history. A success as a fringe show in Great Britain, it opened in a full-scale Broadway production at the Belasco Theatre March 1975 — and closed promptly 45 performances later, leaving critics wondering what was meant by this campy mashup of old sci-fi and horror movies. Several key members of the Broadway cast, including Tim Curry, Meat Loaf and (author) Richard "Ritz" O'Brien, rushed directly into a low-budget quickie August 1975 film version, retitled "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" — and into cinematic history as one of the greatest cult films of all time, seen at midnight screenings worldwide for decades. The stage show found better acceptance on Broadway in a modestly successful 2000 revival that ran 437 performances with a to-die-for cast that included Raul Esparza, Alice Ripley, Lea DeLaria, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Tom Hewitt and Joan Jett. But the movie version remains the definitive "Rocky Horror" for most people.

Newsies

This musical found its success by going in the opposite direction — from film to stage. The original 1992 movie musical was considered a low-grossing disappointment, despite a score by Alan Menken and a cast that included Christian Bale, Bill Pullman, Ann-Margret and Robert Duvall. Ah, but when it came out on video shortly thereafter, it was embraced by parents who found a PG-rated non-animated musical they could safely let their kids watch…and it was embraced by those kids, who fell in love with it. Their interest led Disney to take it off the shelf, dust it off, and get Menken, lyricist Jack Feldman and new librettist Harvey Fierstein to work it up as a touring stage show. They didn't expect Broadway audiences to cotton to its story of lovable newsboys, but they sure did. The strictly limited run turned into a 1,004-performance, Tony-winning bonanza.

Unfortunately, sometimes even two times aren't enough. Broadway saw that twice this past season. Side Show, a rewritten version of the 1997 cult musical about conjoined twins in vaudeville, ran even fewer performances than the original — 56 performance versus 91. The same was true of the musical Gigi, which played a disappointing 103 performances in its 1973 Broadway debut and managed only 56 in its 2015 "revisal."

Lastly, some shows belie the Fred Ebb lyric to "New York, New York" that if you can make it here you can make it anywhere. Seussical, the 2000 Dr. Seuss musical that struggled through 198 performances on Broadway, became a huge hit around the U.S. when the stock and amateur rights began to be licensed. For a time it was the most-produced show in the country.

Similarly, John Cariani's portrait of small-town New England life Almost, Maine, ran exactly one month in its 2005 Off-Broadway debut. Since then, there have been more than 2,500 productions across North America. Not bad for a guy who's primarily an actor. He's currently playing Nigel Bottom in the Broadway musical Something Rotten!

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