Playbill loves Broadway. We’re its biggest fan, but not in a creepy, break-its-legs kind of way. That’s one of the big reasons we don’t write Broadway reviews. We don’t want to kneecap any show; we’d rather wish that they “Break a leg!” instead.
And if a show does close early, we still try not to use language that might suggest the show was a failure. We don’t say “flop” or “turkey.” We say “short-lived.” There could be any number of reasons a show didn’t make it past opening night, after all.
Oliver Putnam’s latest go, Death Rattle, for instance, never reopened after the murder of star Ben Glenroy. In fact, it never even actually officially opened. The opening night performance was halted mid-show as Glenroy collapsed on stage. He was rushed to the hospital but was pronounced dead upon arrival. Except he wasn’t dead! Glenroy was revived and out of the hospital in time for the opening night party. Only to mysteriously die later that evening in the Upper West Side apartment building where he resides! (On a tip from Putnam and his Death Rattle co-star Charles-Haden Savage, Glenroy had purchased comedienne Amy Schumer’s empty apartment in the historic Arconia.)
Crazy, right? Now that’s a show we want to see!
Because Death Rattle never opened, reviews were never published. But we heard from friends who caught previews that the, ahem, short-lived drama was a nonstarter anyway. A dud. A bomb. A certifiable stinkeroo.
So, we did a little digging and got our hands on notoriously prickly critic Maxine Spear’s Death Rattle review. (God bless you, Reddit, you treasure trove of bootlegs, rumors, and hacked emails. AWTA?)
We thought Spear’s review of Go, Go, Gazette (the musical about the birth of Britain’s Crown newspaper during The Great Plague) was brutal. That pan only contained three words: “Don’t go go.” But Spear really stuck her poisoned pen into Death Rattle. Have a look.
THUNDER CRASHES, the lighthouse lantern spins, and a body lies crumpled on the rocks.
A body, dear reader, that I sincerely wished was my own.
If it had been, then I would have been spared from the cruelty of sitting through Oliver Putnam’s three-hour desperate cry for help. Bland. Bleak. Impossibly, indescribably boring; Death Rattle is far too perfect a name for a show that is essentially one long, shaky, exceptionally painful, dying breath.
The process of narrowing down a suspect behind the heinous crime that is this production, or even making a list of offenses is utterly overwhelming. The show is criminally miscast (we will get to that), heinously designed, and lit like the men’s sauna in a West Village gym in 1968 (very, very poorly!). But it is the direction that pains me most. It is the direction that makes me wish I could swap bodies with a Bush-era inmate in Guantanamo Bay if it means escaping this theatre. It’s the direction that makes me convinced that the very foundations of modern American theatre are rotted to the core.
Putnam is admittedly more well known for captivating his ensembles (by way of paralysis) than his audiences. But anyone with more culture than a vanilla yogurt has probably encountered the play in some form—if not by starring in it at the local elementary school, then in the form of a spoof on television, in film, or by Cate Blanchett opening the Tonys in 2012. Therefore, I assumed—incorrectly—that anyone adapting the show for modern audiences might have something to say. Something unique.
Putnam is known best for his vivid use of color, his love of large ensembles, and his work bringing highly choreographed (and oft under-rehearsed) musicals to the American stage. And yet Death Rattle feels drained of all vitality. One watch is enough to sap any audience member of the desire to return to the theatre—for life.
The show was clearly meant to be a star vehicle for Ben Glenroy, who appears to have really tried his best. Honestly. And that’s very sweet, but his “best” unfortunately included several missed lines, three unscripted vulgarities, and two involuntary winks at women in the audience. He’s as wooden as the lighthouse he’s standing on, and unlike most silver screen stars who struggle to scale up for the big stage, Glenroy projected so much that I was showered in spittle (row 10) by the time it was intermission.
Charles-Hayden Savage was more Brazzos than Constable, which would have been fine if he’d had the decency to arrest himself for his godawful performance, including but not limited to, his pants fly being down the entire second act. As far as the rest of the cast goes, Broadway newcomer Loretta Durkin was an underutilized breath of fresh air, but the ensemble seemed just as confused to be there as I was.
Was I missing something? Was the undeniable suffering I was experiencing as a viewer meant to evoke the work of say, Norwegian photographer Torbjørn Rødland whose disturbing photographs and themes of sadomasochism make commentary on the eroticism of the pain we inflict upon ourselves? Was the nightmarish lighting some weak visual reference to Caravaggio’s tenebrism, an allusion meant to help me find common ground between his grim, somber, works and my own depressing fate of sitting in this theatre? After much more thought than I care to have given, I can say confidently: no. No art was made here. No risks were taken. No work was done.
Putnam’s show didn’t sing. But whose fault was this really?
Like a ship ignoring the lighthouse’s bright and steady beams as it crashes into the craggy shore, I should have seen this one coming miles away. My biggest regret was ever getting my hopes up.
Oof. Well, at least this review was never published. But what was published? The official programs for Death Rattle, which you can peruse below. Putnam's note in the Playbill about the "brilliantly unpredictable tale of life itself" definitely takes on an extra edge now considering recent circumstances.
But the beleaguered director will not be defeated by something as inconvenient as injury or murder (he infamously downplayed the disastrous first performance of Splash! with, "Well at least those performers made an impact"). Putnam is now hard at work on the musical adaptation of Death Rattle, with its truly…inspired…title: Death Rattle Dazzle! The entire cast from the play version is returning, except Glenroy, of course, who will be succeeded by his understudy Jonathan Bridgecroft.
Death Rattle is a classic murder mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie. A young mother is found at the base of the Pickwick Lighthouse, having been choked to death with a baby’s rattle and thrown from the widow’s walk. A handsome out-of-town detective is called in to solve the murder that the local constable couldn’t. His prime suspect? Is it the nurturing and wise Nanny? The oddball Boatman? The deceased mother’s best friend and godmother of the baby? Or the secretive lighthouse keeper, the baby’s father?
No. Though all of them seem to definitely be hiding something, when it comes to figuring out who offed Mother, all clues point to the infant himself.
We’re told that powerhouse producer Donna Demeo and her son Cliff, in his inaugural project, were sold on the musical adaptation at a backer’s performance when they heard the lullaby “Look for the Light,” performed by newcomer Loretta Durkin and TikTok sensation Kimber Min. Rumor also has it that the Tony- and Oscar-winning songwriting team behind Dear Evan Hansen and La La Land Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were brought in to doctor the Death Rattle Dazzle! score, including writing a song for Charles-Haden Savage.
So often, when a television star makes the jump from screen to musical theatre, we ask, “Can they even sing?” After digging up “Angel in Flip-Flops” from the album Brazzos Sings!, we’re all in for Savage on Broadway. Unfortunately, we heard (again, thank you, Reddit!) he went completely black-out actor during some of his first rehearsals of his big number, “Which of the Pickwick Triplets Did I?” (Guess that’s part of the Dazzle…the infant suspect is now triplets.) We can’t even get the cast to talk about what happened. But Savage managed to get it together. Playbill was able to get some rehearsal footage of the nail-biting “Which of the Pickwick Triplets Did It.” Watch the video below and let us know what you think.
Death Rattle Dazzle! stars Savage as The Constable, Bridgecroft as The Detective, Durkin as The Nanny, Min as The Godmother, Ty Wessex as The Father, and Bobo Malone as The Boatman. Putnam directs, following a 15-year absence from the Broadway stage. Preview performances begin October 4 at the Goosebury Theater.
We’re wishing the cast and company of Death Rattle Dazzle! a hearty “Break a leg!”
The Season 3 finale of Only Murders in the Building releases on Hulu October 3. The show has released two singles featuring numbers from the fictional musical Death Rattle Dazzle! including “Look For The Light” performed by Meryl Streep and Ashley Park and “Which Of The Pickwick Triplets Did It?” performed by Steve Martin. Original songs are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and music is by Siddhartha Khosla. Full album available October 4.
The review of Death Rattle was previously written in March by Brian Rosenwinkel, a writer for Only Murders in the Building.