Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops
By Ken Mandelbaum
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. 372p. illus. index. $14.95. ISBN 0-312-08273-8.
Flop musicals, unless they are of unusual importance or interest, are rarely mentioned in general books about Broadway musicals. Information about these musicals can be extremely hard to come by even for researchers. This book thus stands as the only substantial overview of this peculiar "genre," which has its devoted fans in much the same way as do bad movies. There's one big difference, though. Because of the nature of musicals and the way most people are forced to interact with them--via music CD rather than stage production, especially in the case of flops--a flop musical can have an A-level score that, when divorced from the rest of the show, can stand with the best of the entire genre. Not Since Carrie does its best both to illuminate flop musicals and to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The book starts with a substantial prologue about the 1988 flop Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel. Carrie, as the title of the book suggests, has become a benchmark for musical badness; Mandelbaum later makes the case that Carrie was a kind of uberflop, embodying all of the different traits that previous flops possessed in singular. The eight chapters of the book deal with these traits and their associated musicals. Note that many musicals could have been classified into more than one chapter (e.g., Wildcat was both a star flop and a Cy Coleman flop); Mandelbaum included them only once according to where he felt they belonged (e.g., Wildcat appears under "Star Flops"). He provides an appropriate amount of information for each flop, at least a page and often much more than that for interesting shows. When possible, he provided pictures of Playbills or scenes from the shows (usually publicity stills).
Chapter 1 covers "Catastrophes and Camp"--musicals that were horrors from start to finish, or that had that "so bad they're fun" air. Examples include Kelly (the benchmark flop before Carrie), Breakfast at Tiffany's (so bad that David Merrick took the unprecedented step of shutting the show down in previews), Legs Diamond, Dude and Via Galactica (incoherencies in the post-Hair era), Portofino (possibly the worst musical ever), Rachael Lily Rosenbloom (an intentionally camp musical), Home Sweet Homer, Into the Light (it attempted to prove the Shroud of Turin real and starred Dean Jones), Chu Chem (a Buddhist-Jewish musical), and Whoop-Up (maybe the ultimate trash musical; drawn from Stay Away, Joe, which was also a bad Elvis movie).
Chapter 2, "Star Flops," deals with star vehicles that failed. Did you know that Gwen Verdon and Ethel Merman were the only two stars who were never in a flop? Everyone else, even the redoubtable Mary Martin, appeared in at least one flop (Martin's was Jennie). The chapter is divided into big names, medium- or never-quite-made-it names, and one- and two-shots. Stars covered include Ray Bolger (All American, proving that Mel Brooks didn't always have the hit touch, and Come Summer), Carol Channing (The Vamp), Robert Preston (a whole bunch, including Mack and Mabel), Judy Holliday (Hot Spot), Alfred Drake (a trio), John Raitt (Three Wishes for Jamie, A Joyful Noise), Barbara Cook (a whole bunch), Anthony Newley (Chaplin), and Ginger Rogers (The Pink Jungle). Second-tiers include Nanette Fabray, Helen Gallagher, Nancy Walker, Joel Grey, Dorothy Loudon, and Eddie Foy, Jr. The one-shots were Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, Julie Harris, Maureen O'Hara, Shirley Jones, Cesare Siepi, and Alexis Smith.
Chapter 3, "Major Writers," means flops associated mainly with major-league creative individuals. These flop shows, or at least their scores, tend to be more interesting and/or better than usual. Mandelbaum starts, naturally enough, with Rodgers and Hammerstein (Pipe Dream). Thereafter, we have Rodgers alone (Rex, I Remember Mama), Cole Porter (Out of This World), Frank Loesser (Greenwillow, Pleasures and Palaces), Jule Styne (a whole bunch), Arthur Schwartz (The Gay Life, Jennie), Noel Coward (The Girl Who Came to Supper), Mark Blitzstein (Reuben Reuben), Richard Adler (everything he did after Jerry Ross died), Stephen Sondheim (even though most of his productions lost money, Mandelbaum doesn't count them because they ran long and won critical acclaim; he focuses on Anyone Can Whistle and Merrily We Roll Along), Charles Strouse (six consecutive flops--my, my, my), Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (The Body Beautiful, Tenderloin), John Kander (without Fred Ebb--A Family Affair), Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (Celebration), Cy Coleman (Home Again, Home Again; Welcome to the Club), Larry Gelbart (The Conquering Hero), Meredith Willson (the notorious 1491), Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire (Love Match), and Jerry Herman (Dear World, etc.)
Chapter 4 covers flops where "The Movie Was Better"--bad adaptations. (As an aside, I'm reminded of a stupid article I read either on MSNBC.com or in Time, where someone claimed that the success of The Producers was going to result in a spate of movie-based musicals, which was bad because in previous years, there had been few such musicals. Guess the writer never heard of Applause, A Little Night Music, Sweet Charity, etc. etc.) Movies subsequently trashed on stage include movie musicals (Gigi), movies with musical-inappropriate subject matter (The Yearling--why would anyone think that would make a good musical?), badly-realized properties (The World of Henry Orient, on stage as Henry, Sweet Henry), and foreign-film adaptations (The Baker's Wife).
Chapter 5, which every budding musical writer should read, is "Don't Let This Happen to You," listing nine musical no-no's that spelled disaster for the creators foolhardy enough to disregard them: Don't musicalize works which can't be musicalized (Shogun); don't musicalize works that don't need music (Cyrano); don't start with a bad/impossible idea (How Now, Dow Jones); don't attempt to musicalize a major work if you're not up to it (Billy, based on Billy Budd); don't write shows without an audience (Raggedy Ann); don't fool around with a good source (At the Grand, based on Grand Hotel; the far more successful remake returned to much of what made the original source great); don't do the same thing twice (The Student Gypsy, a faded Xerox of Little Mary Sunshine); don't use old music (I think this commandment has lost its punch, frankly, with all those dumb pop-rock revues-masquerading-as-musicals, like Buddy and Mamma Mia!, being dumped on us from London); and don't do sequels (Annie 2, Bring Back Birdie).
Chapter 6 is when Mandelbaum starts getting into "Missed Opportunities"--shows that could have been good but weren't, usually because of a good original property that was mishandled. Shows like Saratoga, Flora, the Red Menace, Doonesbury, and Sophie basically wasted good concepts.
Chapter 7, "Not Bad," covers shows that didn't quite click; pleasant mediocrities, shows with not-insurmountable problems, or shows never really given a chance. Bajour; Do I Hear a Waltz?; House of Flowers; 70, Girls, 70; Baby; and Drat! The Cat! are featured, among many others.
Finally, chapter 8 deals with "Heartbreakers and Cream": musicals with exceptional scores and high (but failed) ambitions. Here we find The Grass Harp, Juno, Mack and Mabel, Grind, Rags, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Flahooley, Mata Hari, Candide, Simply Heavenly, The Human Comedy, and The Golden Apple.
An Epilogue covers the Carrie fiasco in more detail, examining what led to the bad decisions behind the musical.
Not Since Carrie is, in my opinion, one of the two best books ever written about musicals (the other being The Season). Indeed, this book is so well known among show music fans that there is an entire series of Amazon lists based on the chapters. I have read and re-read it at least half a dozen times, using it as a purchase guide and comparing my opinion of certain scores with Mandelbaum's. Mandelbaum is, of course, one of today's most respected Broadway critics, and has penned several other books on the subject, including the definitive history of A Chorus Line. You will also find him writing for CD booklets, often providing history and opinion for flop musicals that have been reissued or remastered. I like his style: he's clear-voiced and respectful of those shows deserving of respect, but never fails to be cheerfully scornful of the more abominable flops. His opinions are pretty reliable, too. At least in terms of matching up with my own taste, I find that Mandelbaum's evaluations usually coincide with mine. (It's interesting to note, however, that in his book he's rather noncommittal about Breakfast at Tiffany's music, but he's quite enthusiastic about it in the CD booklet of the recent studio cast recording.)
The book could have, perhaps, been arranged more usefully; internal cross-references would really have helped. It's awkward to have to trace a particular composer's (or star's) musicals via the Index, and it's not always clear that more material from a particular individual exists. For example, most of Cy Coleman's shows fall under Major Writer flops, but Wildcat is a Star Flop--and there's nothing in the Major Writer section to point a reader back to Wildcat. Similarly, most of Robert Preston's flops are categorized as Star Flops, and Jerry Herman's flops are, of course, Major Writer flops, but their best and most famous flop show, Mack and Mabel, shows up way at the end as a Heartbreaker flop, which will doubtless be confusing to readers expecting to find at least a cross-reference to that seminal flop. Perhaps a future edition can contain an appendix or front matter that lists all musicals associated with an individual, along with page numbers. I'd also love to see more pictures from the shows, but they probably don't exist. Another useful section would be one that lists highly recommended titles, since right now you have to read every entry to find out which has a good score and which should be avoided.
This book is an essential purchase for the serious and adventurous Broadway fan who wants to go beyond the standards, who wants to investigate the lesser-known work of a composer or star--and who wants to understand why a show can flop despite the contributions of talented people. My understanding of show music has been utterly transformed by this book. I will be forever grateful to Ken Mandelbaum for turning me on to these scores.
Review copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild. All rights reserved
I invite other reviews, or comments about the review above. All submitted material will be properly credited and copyrighted to the submitters. Please see the submissions page for more information.
Or, if you're not in a mood to publish, just let me know your opinion of this review.
Return to Bursting with Song Return to Rational Magic current issue Go back to the Rational Magic home page