The Biggest and Funniest Musical Flops of All Time
There are few things more fascinating to me than major creative flops. It’s hard to make something, much less something good, but in our age of remakes, reboots and absolutely no risks, there’s just a real delight to seeing something so expensive and off the wall go down in a blaze of glory. It’s even better when it’s set to music. The average Broadway musical costs around $15m, and 75% of all musicals that premiere on Broadway fail to break even. Don’t even think about profits, because just recouping your initial costs is a feat unto itself. Of course, if you pull it off and create a bona fide hit, be it Phantom of the Opera, The Book of Mormon, or, of course, Hamilton, the benefits speak for themselves. The chances are that Phantom will never stop making money, and the same goes for ceaseless tourist traps like The Lion King or Wicked. Nobody can predict a hit, but when you see how those prized smashes endure for decades, it’s not hard to see why some are willing to part with millions.
As someone with a big knowledge of musicals and a particular fascination with hysterical failures, I simply had to make this list for you fine readers. This barely scratches the surface of musical flops. Honestly, doing a comprehensive list would take weeks and I’d probably still miss a few major ones. So, in order to make this list, I had to have actually listened to or seen the show in question in some capacity. Not all of these shows made it to Broadway either, but each of them failed to recoup their costs and had some kind of lasting impact on their composers, producers and the general brand at the centre of the musical. If there’s a musical flop I missed that you feel must be included, let us know in the comments.
Dance of the Vampires
Okay, so here’s an idea for a musical: Take a Hammer Horror parody movie from the 60s, directed by Roman Polanski; add music by Jim Steinem, including a rewritten version of Total Eclipse of the Heart; make it super camp, with at least 80% extra leather trousers; Oh, and write it in German.
Real talk, I fucking love Tanz Der Vampire. It’s pure kitschy melodrama and I’m pretty sure if I spoke German I’d find it a lot less interesting, but what can I say, I like vampires. It’s a show that knows exactly what it is, plays itself just seriously enough, rewrites the movie’s questionable gender roles, and is unabashedly fun. Indeed, the musical’s still popular in German speaking countries to this day (and Japan, because obviously).
Give the European success of the show, I’m sure it made sense to transfer it to Broadway, but things went south almost immediately. First, the producers lost confidence in the show’s tone and decided to make it way goofier - their aim was basically to make it less Anne Rice and more Mel Brooks. Jim Steinem himself took over as director because that whole rape charge on Polanski’s head meant he couldn’t come over to New York to helm it himself. Diddums. Eventually, Steinem had enough and disassociated himself from the new show. Then there was their leading man, a certain Mr. Michael Crawford. The original Phantom himself took on the head vampire role, and was allegedly his usual diva self (his nickname in the West End was ‘Joan Crawford’ because he had a rather beastly temper). He demanded creative changes, which made the show even messier. His main problem seemed to be that he didn’t want to evoke comparisons to that other big gothic musical he did in the 80s. You know, the one people actually liked. And then September 11th happened. I’m convinced Jim Steinem wrote the entire Wikipedia page for this musical, because this section of the article is entitled ‘Casting Crawford, 9/11 and Other Disasters’.
Unsurprisingly, the show flopped with critics, and it closed after 56 performances, losing around $12m. Honestly, I’m not wild about the American rewrite of it, but it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen or heard (or what is available on YouTube). It’s cheesy but seems to play well with the people who did see it. Still, just go watch the German one on YouTube instead.
Love Never Dies
Speaking of Phantom of the Opera…
Just think, if Andrew Lloyd Webber’s cat had gotten his way, this never would have come into being. Bless you, Otto, for trying to erase the score from your owner’s electric piano. There’s nothing about doing a sequel to the longest running Broadway show ever that seems like a good idea. Then again, at this period in his career, Lloyd Webber hadn’t had a hit in quite some time. Indeed, Phantom was his last true success, so why not try to capture lightning twice?
I’d say Love Never Dies, which barely lasted a year on the West End, is like fan-fiction, but that would be an insult to the hard work of fan writers. The basic set-up of this bad idea is that the Phantom now owns an amusement park on Coney Island - just go with it - where he employs Madame Giry and her daughter Meg (who’s now a burlesque performer). He’s still obsessed with Christine because fuck the entire message of the first show’s closing 10 minutes, right? He secretly invites Christine, who’s still married to Raoul and has a son with him, to come perform at the park, like any opera singer would do. It turns out Raoul’s now an alcoholic gambling addict who blew the family fortune and neglects his kid. But don’t worry, because Gustave isn’t his son. He’s the Phantom’s, because he and Christine boned once, and they sing a whole song about it!
I won’t spoil any more of the show because Love Never Dies is the ideal bad movie viewing choice and must be endured with alcohol on the side. Nothing about it works, and the thematic choices it makes undo all the stuff that makes the first show so good. Audiences rejected it, as you can imagine, with one site referring to the show as Paint Never Dries. Eventually, Andrew Lloyd Webber just decided to gloriously sell out and make a School of Rock musical instead.
Gone With the Wind
Oh yeah, they made a musical out of that!
There’s nothing like a vanity project to get the blood pumping. This musical adaptation of one of the most successful books of all time had big shoes to fill. It probably wasn’t the smartest idea to let one person write the music, lyrics and the book, unless that person is Lin-Manuel Miranda. Said maestro had also never written a musical before. Dr. Margaret Martin is best known as a public health official who was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by Barack Obama. Clearly an accomplished figure; just not when it comes to musicals.
Somehow, she roped the legendary director Trevor Nunn - the guy behind Cats and Les Miserables - into bringing the show to life on the West End stage. Darius from Pop Idol played Rhett (ask your local Brit who Darius is)! Yet it didn’t seem like many people had confidence in this show. Can you blame them? Reviews were hilariously disastrous. Almost everyone made reference to the iconic line of ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’ 79 performances later, it was closed for good. I recommend you watch the Newsnight Review segment on the show for a glimpse into how the viewing experience affected the scant few who saw it (warning: The video in question does feature use of the word ‘r*tard’).
Into the Light
It’s always exciting when a completely original musical makes its way to Broadway: Not based on a book or movie or some familiar property that’s easy to market. Still, I’m not sure how anyone pitched the idea of a musical about a guy trying to prove the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin with any success. It must have happened because composer Lee Holridge, a legit Emmy and Grammy winner, got funders to invest in Into the Light. Not that it helped. The show lasted a staggering 6 performances and 13 previews.
Oh look, another vampire musical. It’s almost like it’s a combination that simply doesn’t work, unless you’re German or me. Elton John is a bona fide musical legend, if only for The Lion King, which remains one of the most profitable pieces of entertainment ever made. He’s had other Broadway and West End successes too: Aida did respectable business, and Billy Elliott may be his masterpiece in terms of pure artistic achievement. Still, he’s not immune to a good old fashioned flop, and if you’re going to fail, do it spectacularly. And with vampires.
Anne Rice’s beloved undead creation got the musical treatment from John and writing partner Bernie Taupin. A lot of money was poured into this show, and it’s clear that the creative team genuinely like the books they’re tearing to shreds. Oddly for an Elton John joint, the music is uniformly dull, with most songs blending together into a dirge of beige. The cast give it their all, but this bland snooze-fest wasn’t even good for mockery. This one only lasted 39 performances.
Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark
And so it comes to this. How could it not?
There are flops, there are disastrous flops, and then there’s Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, which cost $75m to make and closed at a loss of around $60m. The catastrophe that is this musical adaptation of Marvel’s beloved arachnid hero is enshrined in pop culture myth, a mere 4 years after it closed on Broadway. Everyone knows about the extended previews, the technical failures, the multiple injuries to the cast, the battle between producers, composers and the director, and the eye-watering cost of it all.
Julie Taymor had made Broadway history with The Lion King, blending commercial and artistic, but giving her essentially a blank cheque to do what she wanted with Spider-Man was a mess waiting to happen. The general feeling one gets from the show is that nobody involved gave a shit about Spider-Man outside of the Sam Raimi movies. Taymor seemed to care even less, and tried to turn the story into a quasi-mythic meta-drama where a bunch of geeks narrate the story like a Greek Chorus, and the spider goddess Arachne wants to fuck Peter Parker. Oh, and she also sings a song about stealing shoes.
The composers, Bono and The Edge from U2, weren’t happy with this development, but it’s not like their music was up to scratch either. The better songs sound like U2 songs that were left off minor albums, but most of them are bland and forgettable, doing nothing to actually tell a story about Spider-Man. Eventually, Taymor was sacked and a new version of the show was cobbled together out of the scraps of the original. The Green Goblin, the only thing getting decent reviews, was elevated to star status and given the best bad villain musical number ever (originally that role was supposed to be played by Alan Cumming, and he admitted he dodged a bullet by pulling out of the show). Overall, it was simply too costly to produce every week.
To break even, it would have needed to sell out every show, at full price, for at least a decade. It managed about 3 years. It closed before it could kill someone, but we’ll always have A Freak Like Me Needs Company.
(Header photograph courtesy of Getty Images. I swear he’s not dead).
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