Second Chances

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A flop out of the starting gate sometimes wins the race in revival. We provide some examples.
Lotte Lenya in the 1955 production of The Threepenny Opera.
Lotte Lenya in the 1955 production of The Threepenny Opera.

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That classic proverb "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" certainly applies to the theatre. Many shows failed on Broadway when first produced, only to become huge hits when revived years later — usually Off-Broadway.

A prime example was the original 1933 production of The Threepenny Opera at the Empire Theatre on Broadway. It ran a dismal 12 performances. When it was revived Off-Broadway in 1955 it ran for 2,611 performances. An unusual aspect of this production was that one of its stars, Lotte Lenya, the widow of the show's composer, Kurt Weill, won a Tony Award for her performance, even though it was an Off-Broadway show.

Another prime example was the original 1963 Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest starring Kirk Douglas. It only ran for 82 performances. A revised version in 1971 was a phenomenal success, however, and ran for 1,025 performances Off-Broadway. Douglas' son, Michael, produced the movie version, which won an Oscar for its star, Jack Nicholson.

When Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author first opened on Broadway in 1922, it confused audiences and some critics and only ran for 136 performances. A splendid Off-Broadway revival of this boundary-busting play was a huge hit, lasting 529 performances. The original 1939 Broadway production of Paul Osborn's Morning's at Seven failed and closed after 44 performances. In 1980 it was revived on Broadway with an all-star cast and became a popular success, running for 564 performances. It won a Best Featured Actor Tony Award for the late David Rounds.

Many famous playwrights have suffered the flop–hit experience. In 1946 Eugene O'Neill's masterwork The Iceman Cometh was indifferently received on Broadway. When it was revived Off-Broadway in 1956 starring Jason Robards, Jr., it scored a success and ran for 565 performances.

Arthur Miller had a similar experience with his thunderbolt The Crucible. When it was first produced on Broadway in 1953, it was criticized for its political content. It ran for 197 performances. But when it was done Off-Broadway in 1958, it was a great success and ran for 633 performances. His A View From the Bridge ran for 149 performances on Broadway, but scored a bigger hit Off-Broadway, playing 780 times.

Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams had the misfortune of being the next play he wrote after his brilliant A Streetcar Named Desire. It was compared unfavorably to Streetcar. Critic John Chapman called it "A Kiddycar Named Desire." It had a moderate run of 102 performances, but when it was revived Off-Broadway in 1952 it made a star of Geraldine Page and enjoyed a much longer run.

A remarkable reversal took place with the nude revue Oh! Calcutta! It originally opened Off-Broadway at the Eden Theatre and moved to Broadway's Belasco Theatre, playing a respectable total of 1,314 performances. When it was revived at Broadway's Edison Theatre in 1976, it played for an incredible 5,959 performances, making it the longest-running revue in Broadway history.

(Louis Botto is senior editor of Playbill magazine.)

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