Hear the Sweet, Sweet Sound of Failure in MTM’s New Show

Hear the Sweet, Sweet Sound of Failure in MTM’s New Show
The cast of MTM's 'You're the Flop' dares to reach for the stars—and miss.

In 1988, the Broadway musical version of Stephen King’s Carrie—which cost its producers $8 million to mount—closed after only five shows, making it the biggest failure in Broadway history.  Ten years later, after rattling the Broadway establishment by deciding to do it entirely his way, Paul Simon’s The Capeman failed to capture the hearts and minds of critics, resulting in an embarrassing black eye. And in 2011, even though it was buoyed by a soundtrack written by U2, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark became an ongoing Broadway punchline for its bloated budget, troubled production and on-the-fly rewrites.

So yeah, Broadway is littered with the glittery debris of sometimes spectacular failure, and it’s awfully tempting to just sit back and enjoy the gloat. Meghan Randolph and Catie O’Donnell, the executive and associate artistic directors of Music Theatre of Madison (MTM), decided to take a different bent: Instead of taking another shot from an ice-cold glass of schadenfreude, they co-created You’re the Flop: A History of Broadway Musical Failures, an original musical opening this Friday in the Bartell Theatre.

Randolph was inspired by reading Ken Mandelbaum’s book Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Flops, a behind-the-scenes chronicle of some of the Great White Way’s most monumental “What were they thinking?” moments. But You’re the Flop takes a far more sympathetic and interesting bent to answering the question, “What makes a show flop?”

“It’s not an evening of bad music,” says Randolph. “So much of whether a Broadway show is successful has to do with other things—timing, tourist markets, critics and things like that. I wanted to show that the success or failure of a show is very much a multifaceted thing.”

You’re the Flop ties songs culled from Broadway duds such as Title of Show, Wonderland, Maui, Sideshow and Taboo together into a loose story arc about the fears, hopes and doubts of a group of unnamed individuals—The Actor, The Actress, The Composer, The Writer, The Producer—who are trying to mount a mystery musical.

For instance, when The Producer gets bad news about the show, he breaks into “When I’m Drunk I’m Beautiful,” from Prettybelle, the forgettable 1971 musical about a nymphomaniac prostitute—yes, a nymphomaniac prostitute—that starred Angela Lansbury (!).  A hopeful moment in the show is underpinned by “Why Not Me?” from the notorious Carrie.

Randolph notes that a lot of these so-called Broadway flops featured beautiful songs—Barbra Streisand’s huge ’70s hit “He Touched Me” came from 1965’s ridiculously named Drat! The Cat! found success outside the bright lights of Broadway. Randolph points to a pair of recent MTM shows—2013’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and 2012’s Parade—that failed on Broadway before finding audiences off Broadway, in regional theater and even middle and high school productions. Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along and Seussical the Musical are two more examples of shows that survived bombing Broadway to find success elsewhere. Hell, even Carrie had a brief but reasonably successful re-staging off Broadway two years ago.

The original producers of these shows, says Randolph, deserve note for daring to challenge the establishment.  

“Any kind of risk on Broadway is really scary,” says Randolph. “It’s a tourist market that wants to see holiday shows and Disney. But Broadway is not the be-all end-all for shows now. Musical theater is only a one-hundred-year-old art form. It’s still evolving.”

You’re the Flop is Randolph’s first stab at writing dialogue, and while she describes it as a nerve-wracking experience, she also credits her collaborators, including O’Donnell and New York-based composer Robby Sandler, for being nothing but supportive. “I didn’t expect it when I came up with the concept for the show, but it’s actually very moving,” she says.

You’re the Flop shows June 6–7 and June 12–14 in the Bartell Theatre. For information or to buy tickets, click here.