Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Best of the Decade: The Best Flop Musicals

Although it is too early to tell about shows that opened in the 2009-2010 season being hits or flops, I'm betting that in the end American Idiot, Come Fly Away and Million Dollar Quartet will be regarded as flops.  But, since no one knows for sure, yet, I did not include any of those on my list of my favorite shows that are flops, and I'm not sure any of them would have made the list anyway.

Before I make my list - I've narrowed it down to 10 that I actually saw - I should define "flop."  I do not mean "flop" to be a show that did not return its investment.  (Though, as it turns out, I believe that no show on my list did actually make back its money.) After all, a show can be a huge critical success and not a financial one.  In general, I define "flop" as a show that is generally regarded as not having met expectations.  Some have awful books, others bland scores, some were supposed to be blockbusters, but the public stayed away in droves and they had short runs.  To me, that is a flop.

One last note before I start: Just because these appear here doesn't mean thay can't also appear on future lists.  Two of them stand a chance to make my Best Musicals of the 21st Century (So Far) list!

10.  In My Life
What Was I Thinking?  Sure, it is a hot mess of a show.  The book is stylistically all over the place, the score is bland and repetitive for the most part.  But there is a lot to be said for taking a risk and putting it all out there, no regrets.  There are some really amazing moments in the show, and Christopher Hanke (who makes this list twice) is pretty damned fine in conveying Tourette Syndrome without making fun, but rather making it something we feel bad about and then embrace as just one of his quirks and nothing more.  The message of the show is a great one.  And I left the theatre feeling alive.

9.  The Times They Are A-Changin'
What Was I Thinking?  OK, so it is no Movin' Out, and the story imposed on the songs of Bob Dylan was so "out there" a synopsis had to be added.  But  the music sounded amazing, the cast has three terrific singer-actors in Thom Sesma, Lisa Brescia and Michael Arden, and the dance corps including John Selya and many of Twyla Tharp's regulars was doing things on that stage that thrilled, terrified and shocked.  For a fast flop, the audience I saw it with was sure into it - the curtain call went into over time.  I left thinking, "This will be a success years from now.  It is way ahead of its time, and it asks a lot of its audience."  Ultimately, for me, shows that challenge me and ask me to be fully engaged are the best.  This one did just that.

8.  High Fidelity
What Was I Thinking?  I might have been the only one of the thirty or so people who actually saw this show that didn't read the book or see the movie ahead of time.  I went in cold.  And I really had a great time.  I loved the set.  It reminded me of those Russian stacking dolls - every time it moved, a new layer was revealed.  I loved the cast - Will Chase (who also makes this list twice) and Christian Anderson are two of my favorite performers, as are Andrew Call and Jenn Colella.  Plus, it gave me my first taste of a guy who might just be my new Sondheim, Tom Kitt (he also makes this list twice).  And just how bad can a show be with a character named "Futon Guy"?  Still haven't seen the movie or read the book, but I do play the Cast Recording somewhat regularly.

7.  A Catered Affair
What Was I Thinking?  Really more a play with music, this intense drama was amazing for its sheer power and raw emotion.  Add to that a supremely talented cast including Harvey Fierstein, Tom Wopat, Faith Prince, and two of my favorite performers new since this century started, Leslie Kritzer and Matt Cavanaugh.  The stylized acting was superb, the music fit the moment, and the staging contains a moment that will always rank right up there with the first time I saw Grizabella go to the Heavyside Layer:  There is a moment, late in the show, when a distraught mother (Faith Prince), being pulled in all directions and none of them satisfactory, retreats to the fire escape.  And she stands there just staring out, for well over a minute, in complete silence.  The audience didn't make a sound - not a cough, not a rustle.  We were all holding our breath to see what she would do next.  It was a supremely theatrical moment that I will never ever forget.

6.  Cry-Baby
What Was I Thinking?  OK, so it isn't as good as Hairspray, but had it come first, I think Cry-Baby  would have been a much longer running show.  On its own, it is hilarious, vulgar in the best possible way, and it knew what it was: a send up of a time gone by that most of us reflect back on as being a golden, near perfect time in America.  The dancing was beyond spectacular.  The score was tuneful, funny and sharp, and the book was a scream.  And it had Elizabeth Stanley, James Snyder, Harriet Harris and an ensemble that included the aforementioned Andrew Call and Christopher Hanke.  It saddens me that it never got recorded.  I left the theater feeling very upbeat and happy.  Not a bad thing.

5.  13
What Was I Thinking?  I didn't recognize it at the time, but Tom Kitt was the musical director and conductor for the show.  For me the main attraction was the limb Jason Robert Brown  put himself out on.  What a pleasant surprise!  The show really struck a nerve with me, I'll have to admit.  My family moved when I was almost 13, just like the main character in the show, and I was miserable about that on top of being miserable about being 13.  The score is enjoyable, and for the most part, the kids in the show were genuine and not annoying - Allie Trimm, Graham Phillips (he is already a TV regular on The Good Wife), Al Calderon, Aaron Simon Gross and Eric Nelson all strike me as having a real future on the Broadway stage, particularly Miss Trimm.   I enjoyed the show and left feeling, some 30 years later, validated.

4.  Seussical the Musical
What Was I Thinking?  I loved it from the opening note to the "Green Eggs and Ham" curtain call.  If you love and really know Seuss, how could you not?  Sure, it was a risk jamming all of those famous characters into one story, but what Dr. Seuss book isn't a muddled mess on the surface?  I found the entire evening to be clever, colorful and fun.  It also has one of the best scores of the new century.  How could you not thrill to the opening number, "Oh the Thinks You Can Think!", or not be moved to tears by "Alone in the Universe"?  This CD rarely leaves my player.  And the show really put Kevin Chamberlin on the Broadway map.  Now if we can just find him a huge hit!  Oh, yeah, he's the Tony nominee from The Addams Family...packin' 'em in 8 shows a week!

3.  9 to 5: The Musical
What Was I Thinking?  I went into it terrified that they'd somehow ruin one of my all-time favorite films.  I shouldn't have been worried, not with Dolly Parton overseeing things.  All the best parts of the movie are in it, and best of all, the score not only supported the book, it improved the original.  This show is easily one of the most underrated in years.  The title song is great, but so are "Around Here" (a catchy set-the-scene number), "I Just Might" and "Backwoods Barbie" (terrific character songs) and the rousing "Shine Like the Sun" (one of the best act-enders in years), not to mention "Get Out and Stay Out" the quintessential 11o'clock number, gloriously sung by Stephanie J. Block, who also finally found a show that allows her to express more than one emotion with her patented shocked/scared blank face looks.  This CD also rarely leaves my player, but the entire experience left me floating out of the theatre on that rare high you get from a plain, old-fashioned musical comedy.  Joy to the girls, indeed!

2.  The Story of My Life
What Was I Thinking?  Being a fan of both Will Chase and Malcolm Gets, I had to see this show.  I knew no matter what, I'd see two great performers giving their all.  What I wasn't prepared for was the emotional roller coaster I was about to ride on.  I laughed, I cried - like a baby, not just a silent tear or two, I MADE NOISE!  You see, The Story of My Life really hit home for me because it depicts the rarest of all relationships to be delved into on stage - two male best friends.  It is a complicated dance we men do as we find the perfect best buddy.  We love each other, we fight, we hurt each other, we male-bond with each other, but mostly we love each other.  And it usually goes unsaid because we wouldn't want to give the wrong impression, you know.  And those show depicts just that, from being small boys to grown men.  It wears its heart on its sleeve.  There wasn't a dry eye in the place, male or female.  And I am certain that I am not the only guy who left the theatre and called my best buddy just to tell him I'm thinking of him.  "I love you, you know."  "You just saw a show didn't you?"  Best buddies know you better than anyone.

1.  Little Women
What Was I Thinking?  Just as with High Fidelity, I went into this one never having read the book or having seen any of the movie versions.  It was fresh to me.  And I love strong female characters; there isn't a weak one here.  Loved Sutton Foster, Maureen McGovern and my first time seeing Jenny Powers.  A history buff, I also loved the period.  But I really loved the score, each song better than the last, with "The Weekly Volcano Press" being a favorite, and "Astonishing" ranking right up there as one of the great diva/belt songs in years.  But nothing prepared me for Beth's (Megan McGinnis) untimely death.  The scene between she and Jo, including the song "Some Things Are Meant to Be" makes me tear up even as I type this.  I've never been so glad that no one told me the story ahead of time.  Little Women is a classic story, and deserves to be.  Too bad the Broadway bunch didn't see the musical that way.  It is by far my favorite flop.

I have a long history of embracing shows others hated.  But I enjoyed them, proudly proclaiming to anyone who'd listen: "Critics and audiences be damned!  I love this show anyway!"

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