5 Of The Most Disastrous Musicals To Hit Broadway
Broadway theaters recently announced they'll be reopening in the fall, after a full year and a half. If you thought Broadway musical tickets were expensive and hard to find before, the return of Hamilton and Wicked and the rest will make the old version seem like dinner theater. Even as shows sell out months in advance, though, there are some musicals that Broadway won't even consider putting back on. Maybe these notorious failures can make everyone feel better about the months they have left to wait until Broadway comes back.
Annie 2, Annie 2 Mark 2, And 2 Annie 2 Furious
Annie is pretty much what you're picturing when you close your eyes and think of a musical: A story about an orphan girl who runs off a cliff straight into the Great Depression, where most of the songs are upbeat, catchy extravaganzas about staying hopeful and finding joy where you can. It sounds like a weird clash of serious and happy when you reduce it down like that, but it makes perfect sense to anyone who's had to spend ten minutes around a theater kid.
Of course the show ends with a full-tilt happily ever after, where Annie gets adopted by a lonely millionaire named Daddy Warbucks and everyone sings a reprise of the biggest song that you've already started to annoy your parents with. Everyone likes leaving on a high note, even if it means not thinking about how a rich guy named "Warbucks" made his money.
But leaving on a high note means there's no chance for a sequel, and Annie was such an instant smash hit that everyone involved realized they could be milking two cash cows instead of one, and the original crew got a huge budget to make another one.
They wound up with a barely remembered series of attempts at Annie 2, spread across the late '80s and early '90s like so many Hammer pants. We can summarize the whole process by giving you the three titles they ended up giving the one play: Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge got turned into plain old Annie 2, then came back after a while as Annie Warbucks, in the grand sequel tradition of Rocky Balboa.
The sequel was about Mr. Warbucks having to find a wife so Annie doesn't have to be raised by (gasp!) a single parent, but literally everything else was in flux. One rewrite changed the villain's Count Olaf-style disguise into an actual character, another added a scene where Annie sings a song to Babe Ruth to lift his spirits (which is all wrong, Babe Ruth cheers up the sad little kid, not the other way around, learn your severely warped pop culture history).
None of the rewrites could change the fact that if people wanted more Annie they could listen to the album, or go see the show again at literally any middle school. Trying over and over to make a sequel was just throwing good money after bad, which fits a show about a heroic rich guy during the Great Depression.
Hamilton Minus Hamilton
History is always a reliable setting for musicals: The costumes are flashy, the people are recognizable, and there's always enough actual serious stuff going on to counterbalance all the fun and music. But sometimes things can go a little too far in the other direction, like with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a musical about American history through the eyes of every single president from George Washington through William McKinley.
The musical was a collab between Leonard Bernstein of West Side Story and Alan Jay Lerner of My Fair Lady. You can see how those two together would want to swing for the fences, especially with the show premiering during in the summer of 1976, which was peak season for bicentennial hard-ons. A big entertaining production set in the White House that dealt with the darker side of the presidency would have been a huge deal back then, but the team of two musical geniuses wound up going too galaxy-brain: It's one thing to have a musical like Hamilton, that follows one man's story through all the history, but it's another to have a show where one actor is playing twenty different Presidents and another is playing their twenty different First Ladies.
Audiences practically had to fill in scorecards to keep track of who was who and what was going on with 19th-century politics at the moment, and the show tanked, closing after barely a week on Broadway. Critics were psyched about Bernstein and Lerner's songs, which still get covered and recorded on the regular, but they couldn't survive a story that boiled down to "Oh, you like the USA so much? Name every president."
Phantom-Bat Out Of Hell-Opera
Many Broadway musicals start out elsewhere, from off-Broadway to college theater groups to the writer's feverish nightmares (or maybe that's just where Cats started). A smaller show coming to Broadway is a sign of success and confidence, a step up to the big stage in the heart of New York. The problem is, some things just aren't built to exist inside a heart -- like a stake, for example.
If you couldn't tell from the metaphor, we're talking about a vampire musical. Tanz der Vampire was a smash hit German-language musical with music by Bat Out of Hell's Jim Steinman, that parodied vampire stories a decade before Twilight revitalized both vampires and making fun of them. The show got so big they decided to bring it overseas to Broadway, where it would be translated as Dance of the Vampires.
You might have caught the problem already: "German" and "funny" being used to describe the same thing. German humor doesn't travel too well -- the country's most popular TV show is a ten-minute long comedy skit from 1963 -- so they knew the Broadway version of the show needed some big, eye-catching changes.
That's how Michael Crawford, the original Phantom of the Opera, ended up playing the lord of the vampires in exchange for complete creative control over his character. So far, so good, until you hear how he didn't want his character to be anything like the Phantom, and turned him into a cartoon villain with an accent that was "a bizarre mix of Italian and Cockney." The whole show ended up transforming from a straight-faced German parody to a gag-a-minute American parody, which led to the show hemorrhaging any promise it had, to get back to the blood metaphors.
Plus that "Total Eclipse of the Heart" song obviously only works in German.
Production very publicly fell apart months before the show opened, and Steinman himself described opening night as "a fat lady with a sign on her back that said, ‘Kick me!'" Audience and critics agreed on the kicking, and punted the show all the way back to Europe.
The All-Star Spider-Man Musical That Didn't Feel So Good
The longest falls start out the highest, and Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark started out on the top of the world. Just like 1600, the musical was a team-up worthy of a comic book cover: Bono and The Edge would do the music, The Lion King's Julie Taymor would write and direct, and Marvel would consult on how to make the story of an angsty teenager in a bright red bodystocking even more theatrical.
People were so excited that the show wound up with the single biggest budget in Broadway history -- over $75 million, nearly three times the cost of #2 on the list, which is Shrek! The Musical, because of course it is. The dump trucks of money got funneled into enormous creations of rigging and webbing that weren't just there so Spidey could swing around on stage, but so the Green Goblin could reveal his evil plan of dropping a giant piano from the top of the Chrysler Building, and so the mythological spider woman Arachne could appear in a giant web.
Like you might guess from those examples, the musical was convoluted as a comic book, since all the talent and money involved meant people just kept throwing more ideas on the pile. Most big musicals do a month or so of previews before opening to work out the last few kinks, but previews for the nonsensically-titled Turn Off The Dark lasted more than half a year as the story was constantly rewritten, big egos clashed, and performers kept racking up injuries from all the elaborate, dangerous stunt equipment.
This is an actual scene, and these are actual professionals.
People will suffer for their art, but only so much. It's already a grueling ordeal to sing your heart out and dance your feet off eight times a week, but adding all the chaos of a cut-rate Cirque Du Soleil performance went too far for something so silly. A scaled-down version of Turn Off The Dark actually played on Broadway for three entire years, because Spider-Man will never go out of style, but in terms of seeing the wall-crawler sing and dance, you can always just call up that GIF of Tobey Maguire in all black.
The Carrie Musical That Rose From The Grave
Just like most musicals, we want to end this on a high note, so of course we're saving the bloodiest, most horrific material for last.
It's a harrowing emotional story, and you can see the idea behind turning it into a musical: Thousands of stage magicians can tell you how cool it is to see a performance that convinces you psychic powers are real, and Carrie's title character isn't too far away from Wicked's Elphaba (two magical, misunderstood outsiders who wound up as victims of John Travolta).
But when Carrie premiered on Broadway in 1988, it wasn't popular or flying high or defying gravity, or any other Wicked jokes. Instead, the show was all over the map: Some songs were intimate and opera-style, some were full of expensive stage tricks, and one was a gang of shirtless men dancing in a rainstorm of blood, as they joyfully sing about killing pigs.
Now that sounds like it belongs in a musical called Dance of the Vampires.
Audiences didn't know whether to cheer, boo or laugh, and settled on not showing up so they wouldn't have to pick. The show closed in less than a week on Broadway and became a legendary failure, losing millions of dollars. But unlike all the rest of these, the story doesn't end there, and unlike Annie, they didn't try to make a musical based on The Rage: Carrie 2.
Instead, more than two decades later, the creative team took another stab at the musical. They leaned into the camp, rewrote the adaptation, cut out the "Singin' In The Rain" routine, and workshopped it off-Broadway. The result was a success: The redone Carrie musical worked and became a regular fixture for the more interesting kind of high school drama departments. There's every chance it could wind up on Broadway once theaters reopen, though you shouldn't bother bringing a poncho for the blood rain.
Top image: Scott Beale/Laughing Squid