Second Helpings of Famous Turkeys: Flops and Cult Musicals That Deserve Another Chance

News   Second Helpings of Famous Turkeys: Flops and Cult Musicals That Deserve Another Chance Playbill.com sits down with Jennifer Ashley Tepper, host of If It Only Even Runs a Minute, to discuss and dream-cast productions that should be back in the spotlight.

Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley in the original production of <i>Side Show</i>
Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley in the original production of Side Show

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It's the time of year when our minds turn to turkeys — and some people might think we're referring to shows that only ran briefly on the Great White Way and were later memorialized on a certain wall at Joe Allen's.

But we know better, and we know that plenty of shows simply need another chance to build an audience: Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along ran for 16 famous performances in 1982; it has since become a cult classic, performed professionally around the world (most recently at New York City Center and at London's Menier Chocolate Factory and subsequently screened in movie theatres around the country). Carrie was so notorious that it spawned a book by Ken Mandelbaum about less-than-successful Broadway shows... but a revised production of the Pitchford-Gore tuner enjoyed a healthy run Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in 2012. And Bill Russell and Henry Krieger's Side Show, which closed on Broadway after 91 performances in 1997, is back again with a new production that has already earned critical lauds.

So what will the next great triumphant return be? We turned to an expert for some ideas. For nearly five years, Jennifer Ashley Tepper has hosted If It Only Even Runs a Minute, a series of one-night-only concerts celebrating under-appreciated musicals and the people who made the shows happen. "It's been amazing to see so many under-appreciated musicals like Carrie and Side Show getting another chance lately," Tepper told Playbill, noting that these revivals, taking place years after the shows' initial runs, are not only "very inspiring," but speak well of the state that Broadway is in today. A lot of shows had "circumstantial reasons" for not succeeding, Tepper added, "and a new production with a great cast and director would be all they need to become far more well-known." A week after the second half of her theatrical history book "The Untold Stories of Broadway" was released, Tepper not only shared some of her favorite hidden gems, but offered suggestions on who could star in the revivals.

Michael Rupert in <i>Falsettos</i>
Michael Rupert in Falsettos Photo by Carol Rosegg

I Love the 80s

Many of Tepper's picks came from a decade that, she acknowledged, many people believe were a low point for new American musicals. But in spite of the number of quick closures during the 1980s, Tepper insists that there were plenty of hidden gems worth revisiting. Marvin Hamlisch and Howard Ashman's 1986 musical Smile is a "great candidate," she offered as her first example. "I'd like to see Jerry Mitchell direct Smile at Encores!, with Jodi Benson playing Brenda," Tepper said. "There's such a great score and story there. With the way that reality television has taken over our lives, it would be even more relevant today than it was in the 1980s.

"The Human Comedy is another show I always talk about needing a revival," Tepper continued. "It received rave reviews at the Public in 1983, but didn't do well in its Broadway transfer. The production was just too small for its Broadway house, and didn't translate well." The production closed after 13 performances, but "It's this soaring, fun, all-American sung-through pop opera following a family in a small town during a time of war, that's completely unique and riveting. Its story would resonate hugely today. I wonder if David Cromer knows the show…"

Leader of the Pack, meanwhile, ran on Broadway in 1985. "It was a jukebox musical telling the story of Ellie Greenwich through her songs," Tepper said. "This was long before the era of jukebox musicals, and people didn't quite know what to make of it. Today, I think it could have quite a life. And Annie Golden could play herself again!"

Tepper also wants to see In Trousers, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland play in rep, much like The Norman Conquests. "Three 'Marvin musicals' in one day! I have always loved In Trousers, and I think that would bring new fans and life for the first part of the story." In Trousers, she acknowledged, is "lesser-known" than the latter two, which were combined and ran on Broadway in 1992 as Falsettos, earning a Best Original Score Tony Award for composer and lyricist William Finn. Some quick-closing shows from the 1980s also earned notable lauds in their day but have disappeared from the popular mindset. In 1984, Chita Rivera won her first Tony Award for her performance alongside Liza Minnelli in Kander, Ebb and McNally's The Rink. Tepper would like to see a new revival starring Idina Menzel and Lea Michele. "Who wouldn't buy a ticket to that?" she asked.

Alan Menken
Alan Menken

The Ones Who Might Have Been...

Then there are musicals that "closed on the way to success," Tepper continued, noting that many never made it past the development stage. She cites Alan Menken and Tom Eyen's Kicks: The Showgirl Musical as an example. "It's essentially Dreamgirls meets Follies," she said. "Had it reached its planned opening on Broadway in December of 1984, it would've been on the boards during one of the driest theatrical seasons of all time, and would've likely been able to capitalize on that attention. Menken said at the time that the show had 'the biggest, most passionate themes [he'd] ever written,'" Tepper added. "He had yet to make his Broadway debut at the time, and Eyen sadly died of AIDS a few years later. Much like tick,tick...BOOM, I think Kicks has the potential to come back to life, after not quite reaching its initial production.

"There's a witty, bouncy, closed-out-of-town musical that I love called How Do You Do, I Love You," she continued. "It's a Maltby and Shire musical comedy that starred Phyllis Newman and was about computer dating, back in the 1960s. Very How To Succeed-esque in tone, with a score that is killer. When we featured the show in Runs A Minute, Maltby and Shire told me about how Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim came to visit and check out the show, and they discovered not them but... the show's young orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, who they then hired for Company. How Do You Do, I Love You should be done with the original orchestrations so people can hear Tunick's brilliant early work — but also so that this show, which I think is pretty feminist in unexpected ways, can be rediscovered.

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"Some of these shows get rediscovered because a producer or director loved their cast recording, but often shows that were never recorded go undiscovered forever for just that reason," Tepper continued. Truckload closed during Broadway previews; Georgy closed after four performances; and Soon, which closed after three performances, starred Richard Gere, Peter Allen, Nell Carter and Barry Bostwick. "Georgy was based on the movie and came out only a couple years [after the film's release]. Just like Leader of the Pack was before the era of jukebox musicals, Georgy was before the era of by-the-book movie adaptations to the stage. All of these shows have assets that could be highlighted in reinvented productions."

In "The Untold Stories of Broadway," Tepper has spoken with people who worked on some notable cult musicals, including is there life after high school?, Henry Sweet Henry and [the Michael John LaChiusa] Wild Party. "There's a lot of insight on why these shows expired early, and all deserve second chances," she said. "In the latest volume of the book, there are some particularly interesting tales from Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, Evan Pappas, Andre Bishop and Ira Weitzman on each of their perspectives about why My Favorite Year was not a success. I think that one will come back someday, and in fact, the York Theatre is about to present it as part of their Mufti series! "I love the idea of Fade Out-Fade In, the snappy Carol Burnett vehicle, starring Leslie Kritzer," she added. "Those brassy, hilarious Jule Styne, Comden and Green songs were made for her. This show didn't succeed mostly due to the whole thing resting on Burnett's shoulders, while she battled illnesses and accidents.

Norbert Leo Butz
Norbert Leo Butz

"The Goodbye Girl starring Norbert Leo Butz would be perfect. Jeremy Jordan for Sweet Smell of Success and Nick Blaemire for A Class Act," she added. "A revised version of Grind could be revelatory. It was a complicated Hal Prince musical that was ahead of its time, with major themes about racism, terrorism and America."

"There are more recent shows including Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Hands on a Hardbody and Happiness, which I think will come back in huge ways in the years to come," she continued. "Every time a Mack and Mabel or a Working gets a new production — although it was a 'failure' in its original incarnation — an angel gets its wings."

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